Subtitled “Marginalia, Errata, Secrets, Inscriptions, and Other Ephemera Found in Libraries,” Ander Monson’s Letters to a Future Lover collects essays inspired by readers’ leavings. Monson uses these (mostly) anonymous bits of evidence as starting blocks for his concise conversations and inquiries. That the reader of the future could be anyone (or sadly, no one) allows the essays to radiate. If the statement “There is still so much to be read” (“The Uses of Biography”) stirs in you a little panic, here is your book. Letters to a Future Lover is not so much an ode to reading or even the book as an object, but rather, Monson proves that we are linked by the ways in which our textual experiences have changed us.
Mr. Monson was kind enough to entertain my questions, and in return, I did my best to keep my gushing to a minimum.
Linda Michel-Cassidy: What was the piece of communication that set the project in motion?
Ander Monson: It’s hard to pinpoint its exact beginning. In a lot of ways my thinking has always been circling around questions of technology and materiality and how they relate to time. I mean, in my living room I have a retired card catalog from Western Michigan University, sections P and S. I’ve had it since around 2006. The first essay I actually wrote for Letter was in response to a 1928 book I found called Railway Accounting Officers Association Agenda for Fortieth Annual Meeting. It clearly had not been checked out in years–decades maybe. But still buried in the very end of it I found a moving memorial to some of the association’s officers who had died that year. That I could still be moved by this dusty old text, something that many libraries would have already weeded or pulped some years ago: I found this instructive. But the first of the things I found written in books that appear in Letter was that great inscription in Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island that I address in the book’s title essay. I found that in 2009. It’s an amazing piece of writing, though I didn’t realize how deeply it had penetrated my brain until much later, when I was deep into the project of Letter. I had made copies of it and sent it to a couple friends, including Sean Lovelace, who wrote about it in his The Frogs Are Incredibly Loud Here, a fact I was only recently reminded of when rereading that little book.
Linda: You both love the book as an object, yet at the same time embrace technology, or at least use it to your advantage, as where you offer an expansion of your book Vanishing Point on your website. But here, with Letter to a Future Lover, not only is there no mention of electronic media, but that absence feels heightened, because the starting point for the essays is so physical: marginalia and ephemera left behind in books. While reading, I found myself with a sort of hysterical nostalgia for the thingyness of actual books. Did you intend that the book carry a warning or underthread about the possible extinction of the book as object?
Ander: I’m unconcerned about the possible extinction of the book. Many digital technologies are more likely to go extinct than the codex. Try loading a document you stored on a Zip disk or a floppy disk tomorrow. If you can even find a machine that will operate them with a functioning operating system and usable software, it’s likely that the media themselves have degraded beyond the point of usability. And they’re only a decade or two old. Whereas a properly stored codex from hundreds of years back is still perfectly readable. There are a couple essays in the book that approach this question directly or in passing, like “Time’s Revenge,” which is set in the Learning Games Initiative Archive at the University of Arizona (basically a video and computer game library). Letter actually came directly out of the questions I kept getting at readings and in interviews for Vanishing Point about whether the book was dead. It isn’t remotely close to being dead or dying, but answering those questions forced me to think more clearly about what is inferior about an epub or a pdf: they don’t hold our traces effectively if they do so at all. The very thing that the technofuturists laud about the technology—its permanence and untouchability—is the thing that allows for our intimacy with it. And intimacy is what most of us want out of a reading experience. Having said that, I do think we’ll soon see the end of cheap, shittily-designed and -produced paperbacks. The book that pays no attention to the things it does best—in part its physicality—courts its own obsolescence. Let’s not forget that the book is a technology itself, and any writer interested in writing books should be interested in what that technology is capable of.
Linda: I can’t help but consider Letter to a Future Lover as something with tentacles. It’s not just a conversation with the writer of marginalia or the next reader of a particular book. You allude to the experience of reading, “The language splits and we might choose our own adventure” (p65) and again, ”Every sentence is a corridor” (p70).
I’m curious about your writing which starts out feeling epistolary, but in the end morphs into an essay.
Ander: My hope for the book is that it moves readers to execute some of their own publications in books, and to think about how and to whom they might speak in books and libraries. Certainly many of the essays are written on specific occasions and imagine specific readers, but you’re right to note that they move quickly—I hope—to the we. In an essay the I is usually the protagonist, and though I’m writing about myself, I certainly imagine that I to be a stand-in and a vehicle for you, the reader. That is, in an essay, you’re running a program that I’ve (mostly) devised that simulates my brain for you. You run it on your brain. You get to play me. In so doing we really do become a we. And as any reader knows a substantial chunk of what we read is what we ourselves notice and bring to the book; the book provides a lot of the spark, but without a reader it’s not much of anything at all.
Linda: Sometimes to make myself sad (the opposite of a guilty pleasure, I guess), I look at the checkout dates in poetry books, to see how few people have read them. What was the saddest or most alarming thing you discovered while working on the book?
Ander: Oh, certainly it’s the knowledge that the collected human effort compiled in books in libraries that few if any check out anymore—if at all—feels infinite and overwhelming. To know a whole life’s work went into a book published in 1848 that hasn’t been read or checked out in fifty or a hundred years—to be confronted with such obvious evidence of the fruitlessness of our labor—that’s a powerfully humbling experience. But then the flipside of that is that because of libraries, some of these things persist, and as a reader I stumbled on this book, this page, these words these years later, and it still speaks to me. So my finding it and getting something from it strangely validates the practice.
Linda: You write, “In the era of infinite data it is easy to disappear” (p15). Our everyday acts of annotation, marginalia, and the like, while becoming more spontaneous, are also less material. They are fleeting, as tweets, snapchat snippets, comments online or texts, despite the fact that they leave ghosts. Is there something about physical note-making that makes us feel more permanent or relevant?
Ander: Oh, definitely. I think we’re tuned to appreciate things that we can mark, that retain the marks we leave. Even though these physical things also erode and disappear doesn’t change that. Because they erode and disappear they mean more. If we didn’t ourselves eventually die it’s hard to imagine how we’d find meaning in anything. That physical note making is a way of leaving an impression of ourselves and the experience we had reading a book. It’ll be different the next time through because we’ll be different the next time through. If we leave our marks, we can meet ourselves again when we come back to the same pages.
Linda: The book feels akin to this type of performance art, where the viewer sees the evidence of the act in the museum or gallery, and the artist holds a conversation with the viewer, but the exhibit has to act as the synapse. So just as the viewer will not see the actual performance, I won’t ever stumble upon an essay written for me about a predecessor’s jottings, imagining those circumstances will have to suffice. What about the book as a conceptual work, wherein language (or text) is the medium?
Ander: I hope you do stumble on an essay written for you. I wouldn’t count it out. I mean, this communication we do when we write in or on or to books or leave things in them—it’s not efficient in terms of getting a particular message to a particular recipient, but I do believe it’s communication, and not just with that imagined recipient. It’s entering into a conversation with all of us who read codexes and find and leave things there. I know that’s not really what you’re getting at—which is closer to how the book is a record of a practice or habit that I engaged in over the space of about seven years. In a way the book’s not the art itself. The act of publishing the essays into the books where I left them: that’s in part the art. And the art’s in the process of writing the things, in paying attention to the world in a particular way with a particular sort of lens, and then collecting and revising and organizing them. The book—especially the hardcover one, which is a less true (but also much cheaper and more easily available) version than, say, the deluxe limited edition—is the art and the record of the art. It’s also a compromise. Writers know that a book’s only printed; it’s rarely finished, exactly, especially one which documents a practice that’s ongoing. So I’ve written a bunch more of these Letters since the book came out and still consider them part of the book (even if they won’t appear in most people’s copies). What you write in response to the book—how you mark it up or how you take it with you and reproduce it—that’s a part of the book too. The book as such is quite a bit bigger than the version than the reader holds in her hands. And I hope it expands by virtue of that reading into the reader’s own practice, that she’ll hold an impression of it and change—in some miniscule way—the way she relates to words and sentences and books and libraries of course.