Lately I’ve been immersed in all things bibliophilic, reflecting on reading more, organizing my shelves, the value of keeping a list, and the costs associated with an obsession with books. And it occurred to me in the midst of all this that there was something else I could talk about that most of us take for granted, a semi-invisible and rather elementary facet of the reading life that is none-the-less worthy of our occasional attention. Bookmarks.
I don’t collect bookmarks, but I do accumulate them. Old holdovers from childhood, the gifts of well-meaning family members, and the make-do solutions to a temporary need that end up sticking around for many more reads. In thinking about my bookmarks I notice they have a peculiar life cycle very different then those of books — books, while they come and go, often don’t do so mysteriously (unless you have house guests that think of you as a lending library). Bookmarks, on the other hand, can be here one minute and gone the next.
One of the places they could be, of course, is in the book you left them in. Big readers are no strangers to having more than one book going at a time (before I started reviewing so much, I tended to read one fiction together with several non-fiction books at once), and no strangers, too, to suddenly discovering that a book you put aside with every intention to get back to it has sat untouched on your shelf for years. Open it, and you’ll see the bookmark, a diligent reminder of where you left off.
Or, perhaps, a rude one. Get more than one of these unfinished books together — I have a shelf for this — and you’ll see a different picture. Depending on what you use as a bookmark, of course, your unfinished collection with all its sprouting bookmark-ends may resemble a thicket of trees, or a perhaps a flotilla of sailing vessels jostling in harbor. But what I see are protuberant, taunting tongues — a grand razzberry emanating from each volume, salvoed in contempt of my lack of perseverance.
Sometimes these books end up elsewhere — the secondhand bookstore or goodwill. Any shopper for secondhand books knows the archaeological thrill of finding whatever was left inside; like opening a time capsule affording the briefest glimpse into another life. I’ve found receipts, boarding passes, love notes, vegetation, gift cards (expired), photographs, and, once, a fridge magnet. Beyond the interest in these objects — photographs especially are sometimes startling to discover, unexpected peeks at the lives of strangers decades ago — there is also the place you find them within the book. Is it where they stopped reading, or merely a convenient place to stick whatever it was they unknowingly bequeathed to me? Who knows, though it has gotten me considering deliberately leaving material in books as a sort of ‘message in a bottle.’
I think I’ve discovered the bookmarks I like best: playing cards. Rugged, nicely-sized, satisfyingly thick, and coming in packs of 50+, they comprise the ideal cannon-fodder in my war of attrition with lost bookmarks. Business cards, too, work nicely — with the added benefit that leaving them in a book that I get rid of subsequently will function as a cheap, though minisculely effective, form of advertisement for my website. But I have other bookmarks as well, ones that mean more to me, or are just curious remnants of other times that turn up here and there — only this time the time capsule is of my own life.
When I smoked I used matchbook covers as bookmarks, simply ripping them on the seam for a nice little square of cardboard. When I was on a vocabulary kick I used folded notebook paper, upon which I’d write unfamiliar words for later dictionary-plunging. I’ve used that method, too, for note-taking while preparing research papers in college. As a reviewer, I’ve found post-it style stickies great for marking multiple pages I later want to refer to. And of course, other odds-and-ends of convenience have found their way into my books to mark the page, any old scrap of paper will do — though, on occasion, I’ve even used other books as bookmarks, when the size is right.
And, given that so many of the world’s small, flat objects function adequately as bookmarks, I’m always confounded by dogears. Marginalia I can understand, though it is not my practice, as it can create a second and sometimes interesting dialogue between book and reader(s), but dogears are pure defacement. I suspect there is a circle of hell populated by turners of book corners — perhaps they busy themselves getting the crease out of a zillion pages while their fellow offenders, book store employees, spend their eons of torment trying to scrape the price label sticky gum off of a trillion dust jackets. It’s a pleasant thought.
Very fine books have integrated ribbons as built-in book marks, and these I like very much. I’ve developed a habit, whereupon opening one of these volumes, and having a hand on each cover-edge, of giving the book a quick, downward spin that finishes three hundred sixty degrees later with the open pages once again facing me — but the ribbon itself now lying out of the way along the spine. Try it sometime, it feels like a kind of expertise.
Beyond all the junk I’ve slid between the pages, there have been some proper bookmarks, too. As a kid I remember having those cardboard bookmarks with cartoon characters and yarn tassels hanging from the end. I have some large, laminated style bookmarks which are great for bigger books — a few featuring Portuguese compass roses, one with a competent-looking young Einstein, and another with the classic Erasmus quote “When I get a little money I buy books, and if any is left I buy food and clothes.”
I have a very nice bookmark of open-etched, gold-plated steel featuring a dragon of the Chinese zodiac that I reserve for special, and often Asian-themed, reads. It was given to me by a Taiwanese man whom I tutored in English — briefly, haphazardly, and not nearly as attentively as he deserved — ten or more years ago. It, alongside another bookmark that lies at the other end of the spectrum — a Risk card labeled ‘Yakutsk,’ remnant of marathon boardgame sessions in college — are my two favorites.
Which leads me to conclude that quite often the best bookmarks, like the best books, are the one’s that remind you of the best times in your life.
BILL WARD is a genre writer, editor, and blogger wanted across the Outer Colonies for crimes against the written word. His fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, as well as gaming supplements and websites. He is a Contributing Editor and reviewer for Black Gate Magazine, and 423rd in line for the throne of Lost Lemuria. Read more at BILL’s blog, DEEP DOWN GENRE HOUND.