For a certain kind of reader, there's something deeply appealing about literary ephemera.
The website of the University of Texas at Austin's Harry Ransom Center provides examples of books from David Foster Wallace's library, showcasing notes he had jotted in the margins; a 2012 piece in the New York Times Magazine showcased some of the notes Sam Anderson had left in a handful of books. These can be fascinating in small doses, but Ander Monson has opted to embrace it fully: The essays in his new book, "Letter to a Future Lover," are built around the concept of, as the book's subtitle suggests, "ephemera found in libraries."
The inspiration for these essays comes from things as disparate as a Tucson seed library and homophobic rants etched in the margins of Gay & Lesbian Biography. The resulting work is expansive, touching on subjects ranging from Monson's family to life in Michigan.
For all that, Monson's book can be a heady and occasionally dense read, it punctuates that with moments of joyful irreverence. The essays are ordered alphabetically, which means that "Dear Future Lover" is followed by "Dear Future Yooper." Whether playful or strident in tone, a sense of possibility runs through these essays, united by questions of the nature of libraries.
"Throughout history libraries have testified to what a civilization meant, or wanted to believe it meant," Monson writes in one essay. But his own definition of libraries is a broad one: "Dear Squash" is a meditation on one item checked out from the Pima County Public Library Seed Lending Library, for instance. All of which is likely the point: Focusing on ephemera and libraries allows Monson to tackle virtually any topic, from his responses to hateful words found in a number of essays with the title "Dear Defacer" to a consideration of time in "Hold On To This Page For 24 Hours."
In the book's acknowledgments, Monson notes that with respect to the essays, "no meaning is intended by their ordering," and in the second essay, "Ai," he offers one recommendation for a starting point, but argues that multiple routes through the book are possible. If that brings to mind Julio Cortazar's novel "Hopscotch," that may be intentional: It's one of a few works of literature mentioned in the text, along with books by Virginia Woolf and Orhan Pamuk. Beyond the works considered as objects — which include books by Maggie Nelson and a onetime colleague of Monson's — there are plenty of references to other works, other books and other libraries. Don't be fooled by the seemingly short length of Monson's book: Its scope encompasses most everything.
Tobias Carroll is managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn.