"The more I visit libraries the more I find myself opening up to them," writes Ander Monson in his essay collection Letter to a Future Lover. It's not surprising that an author would be attracted to libraries; they are, after all, some of the last places in the world dedicated to the preservation and celebration of literature. They're also at risk of becoming endangered, casualties of budget cuts, increased Internet availability, and apathy.
But for Monson, libraries are something more than just buildings filled with books. He's interested in libraries as a concept, as a living, adapting exchange of ideas, as a way people can connect with one another, even across generations: "To keep a story on a shelf or to remember then retell it means that it will be more likely to exist to those who come after we have gone. It will all be gone in time. Maybe this is the best we can do."
Letter to a Future Lover is Monson's sixth book, and it is a breathtakingly original, thoughtful consideration of what it means to be a reader — or a writer, or a human being. His focus isn't books, exactly, but rather the things we find in them: notes, date due slips, scrawlings in the margins. As an essay collection, it's magnificent; as a love letter, it's a work of overwhelming devotion and generosity.
The essays in Letter to a Future Lover originated, appropriately, as something like ephemera. "I sent these essays into the world inside books I found and spent an hour or more inside," he writes. Some were later published in journals; then they were collected in a box set, loose, in a random order. In this book, they're alphabetized by title ("These are only in an order because binding makes it so").
Most of the essays are shorter than two pages, but they're all powerful, packed with emotion, ardor and sometimes humor. Monson's inspirations are notably diverse: He writes about his childhood library in Michigan, but also about a seed library in Tucson, Arizona, "a hedge against the future, genetic modification, the flattening of biodiversity into a thin, controllable, corporate, patented line." He visits the Biosphere 2 library tower, which no longer contains books, and considers a Braille edition of Playboy magazine found in a Tuscaloosa, Ala., library.
Monson writes with a keen sense of kindness and curiosity, which is apparent even when he's angry. In five essays each titled "Dear Defacer," he addresses a man banned from a university library for writing bizarre, poorly spelled, homophobic comments in the margins of several books. "We live in a society, though sometimes it doesn't feel like much of one," Monson writes. "Still, I want to know your name, what makes you go, why you play this strange."
The prose in Letter to a Future Lover is as expansive as Monson's heart. In "Until Sorrow," he visits Tucson library's exhibit of sympathy cards and letters sent to Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords after she and 18 other people were shot in a grocery store parking lot. While viewing the cards, Monson notices a sign on a room that reads "WIDOW WIDOWER MEETING." "Here we're all wrecked; we're all wet; here we're all lonely, learning again how to live. We know we must forget to progress or move past but we don't know what, how much, how often — how to let go of anything at all."
Nobody knows how to let go, really. Monson knows that we must hold on to things — not just libraries, but ideas, emotions, one another. And we also have to let go, the way he let go of these essays, first as notes in books, then, here, in book form. His words, as usual, are a gift — he is one of America's best living authors, and his 2005 novel Other Electricities was one of the best of that decade.
Letter to a Future Lover is a masterpiece, filled with compassion and brilliance, and a powerful call to arms: "Treating a library as a crematorium for yesterday's knowledge does no one any good. Instead let's keep it live ... so that we might think the world a library and by so thinking, and our feeling, and our stealing, and our starting something new here, make it so."