Bored by the slick disposability of ebooks and deletable pdfs, I’ve spent the last five years loving on the print artifact, haunting libraries of various sorts, writing short essays in response to things I found there (a bookplate, a forgotten sentence, a human hair, a found text, homophobic marginalia, an overheard conversation) and publishing them on 6×9 cards back into the books/libraries where they originated as letters to a future reader. In 2015 Graywolf will publish Letter to a Future Lover, an unbound and unordered box of these essays in a limited edition followed by a bound trade edition.
“I would gladly be a creative person if I could, but I fear it is my lot in life merely to organize and arrange what others have created.… It was only natural that I should begin to acquire books on [the gay liberation] movement. After I filled two shelves with books, all of which were marked HQ 76, with a Cutter number for the author, I began to realize that the Library of Congress had failed to make adequate provision for this subject. I decided I would make some changes.” —David Allen White, “Homosexuality and gay liberation: an expansion of the Library of Congress classification schedule,” Hennepin County Library Cataloging Bulletin #28, 35-38, 1977.
Sometimes the forms we cleave to need revision. As in the television’s thirty-minute blocks, the length of our commute, the familiar thought of His and Hers, driving on the right, our days are more structured by convention than we like to think. Dear David Allen White, I was married here, in Hennepin County, Minnesota, at the county courthouse, our wedding vows witnessed by a judge between cases of Criminal Sexual Conduct, Classes C and D.
Our errors are classified this way as felony or misdemeanor, minor, major, venal, incidental, mortal, thoughtful, supersexy, supermax. The cataloger knows you can’t have coding without syntax, meaning without sorting, so how a book is sorted means and resonates beyond the shelves.
There’s my wedding photo on the shelf. I’m all Alabama bulge and drinking neck, full from weekly trips to the Krispy Kreme just down the street where dough was hot and now and I was always hot to eat it now and so I did. But Megan stars in that bright dress: such loveliness! In what ways did I deserve this state-sanctioned shot at happiness, and what have I done with it? In Alabama we voted just a year before to legalize interracial marriage. It passed sixty-forty. Hard to take part in a thing still denied to friends, but knowing this we chose to stitch ourselves to each other and hold fast, make that joining mean.
That’s how it starts: with a little thing, a decision made, a hack. A reclassification in a system spreads. Just a kludge, a snip of DNA to reduce the likelihood of your future sickness, an asteroid laser nudge to save a continent: what happens to the redirected? An accidental introduction shifts the ecosystem: kudzu to the south, Asian carp to the Great Lakes, buffelgrass to Arizona, Banana Bunchy top virus to Hawai’i, Europeans to the new world, Hi-Yo Silver on WXYZ radio in Detroit.
These words are just small, on cards, parasites riding inside the spines of books. But everything’s a vector, even if I can’t understand how or why it moves, how slowly, or where it’s going to. Like bottled letters chucked into the water, I hope—or maybe trust—for a good current to carry this news as far as it will go.
Sometimes it takes a collector to make a difference in the system, adjust a filing algorithm, point out an oversight or error, suggest a shift. Don’t worry, David Allen White: your reclassification is no less a creative act than that of novelists. It takes some provocation to prompt a beast that big to shift, to get the Library of Congress subject headings moved from “Sexual Perversion” into “Sexual Deviation,” and to liberate “Homosexuality” from that container into the wider world of “Sexual Life.” Never mind that these are incremental steps: what life is not sexual, we might wonder? Everything is form, but under stress a form will change, and should, because form’s just history. The river overfills with monsoon rain and reroutes, collapsing a bridge ten miles out, and redirects itself.
Elsewhere in this cataloging bulletin there’s a proposal to add a new subject heading for “Unnecessary Surgery,” perhaps judging those who choose to have their sex reassigned to the one they always knew it was? From my arm I had a cyst removed the year before we left Tuscaloosa: the scar is still visible, the interloper gone. Almost a decade later tornadoes cut a one-mile swath through the Druid City and obliterated both our last house and the apartment we lived in, miles away, the year before. Photographs show there is nothing left of us and where we were, who we used to be, no evidence of our neighbor’s house, like ours, built post-WWII for those coming back to school on the GI Bill. Alabama and eventual NFL quarterback Joe Namath once lived there, we were told by a pilgrim snapping photographs. Now that too is gone. The Krispy Kreme’s rebuilt, but there’s no remainder of the feral cats we fed and buried there, the friendships that we started, or those that ended.
Except for us, our pitch-shifting bits of memory and how we unreliably encode it, and what’s here on this page or others, there’s no reminder there or anywhere of our attempts, however small, to change or reclassify our world.
Yet twelve years later I can feel the vector moving. Our friends Jon and Clint now have several states from which to choose to host their wedding vows: maybe even Arizona. Twelve years later I still want a doughtnut badly.