Today I’m thrilled to present this interview with writer, publisher, and library-haunter Ander Monson. He’s here today to talk about his relationship to libraries, why he’s passionate about books as physical objects, and his intriguing new book project from Graywolf Press (forthcoming February 2015). Enjoy! ~ Laura
Library as Incubator Project (LAIP): Tell us about yourself. Who are you, and what sort of creative work do you do?
Ander Monson (AM): I’m a writer primarily, author of six books (the newest being Letter to a Future Lover), but I’m also an editor, publisher, and designer. I run a small press called New Michigan Press and a literary magazine, DIAGRAM. My other books are fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and I tend to be very invested in the artifact of the book (hence the box project). Having said that I’m also a bit of a technologist; my last book Vanishing Point tried to find a way to merge the print book and the website (which you can find at http://otherelectricities.com).
LAIP: What prompted your “haunting” of libraries – why seek out libraries as a place to work? What is it about them that is attractive for a writer like yourself?
AM: In some ways this library haunting was a response to Vanishing Point, which tried to fuse the print and digital. I love both, but never really liked the ebook format nor do I generally respond to digital format for books (books are to me a physical thing; there are plenty of ways for texts to work digitally, but generally not books, I don’t think), and because of my experiments with the digital book, I got a lot of questions about it, which prompted me to do some thinking about what it was that bothered me about digital formats (even as I love the convenience of the pdf etc.). The main thing I realized was that I wanted the feeling of having read a book, of experiencing it again, sometimes along with the traces of others (via marginalia, especially), even if those others were just me at 17 with my stupid margin notes or whatever.
I’ve always loved libraries (my wife was a librarian in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, until we left for Michigan some years ago) and have often worked in them. As a writer, I often find myself looking for inputs while I’m writing, and typically those inputs come from books and sentences I’m reading, so why not go to where the books are, I figured?
And what I found, then, was that there was a lot to find in libraries beyond just the printed books. There was a lot more to books than just the printed words. I don’t know why I needed a reminder about it, but then working in libraries, I kept finding and being drawn to human traces: the things I found there, not just the books themselves, but the stuff in the books, the stuff that communicated a reader’s experience with a text, even if it wasn’t always in positive ways. (One of the more spectacular things I found was this extensive defacing of over 300 books in the University of Arizona libraries by the same guy, who would mark up 300 pages of, say, a big book like The Gay & Lesbian Encyclopedia—and he’d reveal himself unintentionally (he clearly appeared to be a closeted guy who was somehow set off by all these biographies) in his homophobic, pathological marginalia—and I found this fascinating. I mean, you’re never going to find something like that reading a pdf.
LAIP: As a writer, what does your ideal library look like? What is it like? What is in it?
Man, my ideal library has everything, is infinite and is perfectly preserved.
I guess therefore it’d be unusable, but I really dislike getting rid of books and hate seeing libraries discard materials (except insofar as I am the recipient of these discards–I’m a collector of old dictionaries and old ephemera and books, something that shows up in the magazine I edit, DIAGRAM, which features a lot of old schematics and diagrams). Nothing would be weeded unless I willed it. And it wouldn’t just be books. Video games in particular continue to be important texts for me, and I try to keep many of the ones I remember best, even if they’re no longer playable. Still the box art on, say, the game Starflight, is enough to prompt emotions as vividly as remembering a readthrough of a novel I loved when I was fifteen.
LAIP: Can you elaborate on a comment you made in a note to the LAIP, that “a library isn’t just a repository for information but a medium through which we speak to the future”? How did this idea play into your new book’s title, Letter to a Future Lover?
AM: Certainly many writers conceive of what we do as writing to the future–or writing to readers (which means future readers). Then books are (one of) the media we use to speak to the future reader. They’re maybe the most intimate, because their form is physical and meant–like a kiss–for one person at a time. The proper–or most efficient, in terms of speaking to the most people—venue for books is a library. And what became clear to me, reading what people wrote or left in books, was that a lot of readers use books–others’ books, books they didn’t write–as things to write to others in (there’s a particularly spectacular inscription I found in a copy of Gary Snyder’s book of poetry, Turtle Island, that makes this point). So I started writing these little essays and publishing them back into the books and libraries where I found them, writing them explicitly for someone else to find, someone who found their way to this book or this shelf in this space in who knows how many years. It’s a slow method of communication, but I believe it’s an important one.
So the essays are individually letters to lovers of the future, and the book is collectively a letter to the future, which I am sure will include libraries, central as they are to how we think about ourselves as a culture and as humans.