In Praise of Bookmarks
At last count I had 106 bookmarks. Approximately 31 of those I found – mostly ones that had been abandoned in books I shelved during my library and bookshop jobs over the past nine years. Twenty-one are from libraries and 19 from bookstores I’ve visited. Seventeen were received as presents. Eight are made of leather, four of metal, three of wood; three are magnetic, two are cloth, and the rest are paper or cardboard (either laminated or plain). I like to match my bookmark to the subject matter of the book in which it’s residing. For instance, Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes would make a perfect temporary home for my gold metal bookmark of a parrot’s outline, while the leather Peru bookmark I found would go perfectly in a history or travel book about South America. First I have the delight of choosing my next book, and then I get the subsidiary pleasure of choosing its appropriate bookmark.
In short, I am something of a bookmark addict.
A librarian’s pet peeves
I have some definite pet peeves about how people treat books. Leaving them splayed open upside down for the spine to go cracked and creased is a no-no, as is folding over pages to mark one’s spot. And while I love using fluorescent Post-it flags to mark interesting passages and memorable quotes just as much as the next person, I can’t stand retrieving a pile of books only to find them strewn with lime and magenta markers people have failed to remove. Especially when it comes to library books, people often don’t take enough care with these shared treasures.
One of my favorite tasks as a library assistant has been repairing those books that return to us damaged and unloved; I glue in loose pages, repair rips with special tape, replace torn-off covers, provide extra support for broken hardback spines, and sometimes create a whole new cover when someone’s been diabolical enough to try to steal the text block.
I spent the summer of 2011 working in our libraries’ Special Collections department, where I learned even more about caring for books properly. Rather than grabbing a rare book off of the shelf by pulling at the top of its spine, I was shown how to gingerly push back the books to either side and grasp it at the middle, finger and thumb sandwiching the spine.
After some time spent perusing the collections I chose 20 especially ailing books we couldn’t repair in-house – ones with cracked leather bindings, acidulated pages, and weak stitching – to send off to a book conservation company in Scotland. I even attended a session to learn some of the special emergency techniques for saving books in case of – heaven forbid! – a flood in the library. (It’s a Girl Scout’s dream of blotting paper, newspaper tents, electric fans, and high-capacity freezers.)
All this is to say that I love books not just for the stories inside them, but also as physical objects, and I am passionate about seeing them preserved so they can be read over and over again. And that includes returning a library book in the state in which you found it; not highlighted or annotated, and certainly not dog-eared.
Who needs to turn over the corners of pages when you can use any of a plethora of wonderful bookmarks? There are so many free bookmarks out there: nearly every bookstore and library will be giving them out, and you can just as easily make your own out of a favorite greeting card, an old photo calendar, or a souvenir that reminds you of a place dear to your heart – whether that be a train ticket, a fragment of a map, or a postcard.
I’ve seen quite the random assortment of objects being used as makeshift bookmarks: price tags, business cards, dried flowers, passport photos, scraps of newspaper, expired phone cards, tissues and paper towels, leaves, and even a pack of contraceptive pills (at least, I can’t think how else they ended up in the book returns box). I suppose this all reinforces the old saying “desperation is the mother of invention” – if people need to mark their place in a book, they’ll find a way. And as long as they’re using a (mostly) flat object to do so, rather than creasing a pristine page, it’s a practice I can – perhaps grudgingly – support.
Bookmarks I have loved
I’ve developed a particular fondness for some of my bookmarks, especially the ones with a story behind them. Although I try to alternate my bookmarks by tailoring them to the individual book, without fail I end up reusing the same handful over and over.
My most precious bookmark is one my aunt wove on her own loom. (Yes, a loom!) It’s in variegated blues, with short tassels at either end, and it’s perfect in every way: it’s neither too thick nor too thin, it’s a suitable height for even the smallest pocket paperback, and, best of all, it absorbs the smell of each book in turn – if I sniff it even a few days after the book is finished, I’ll reencounter the lingering aroma of what I just read. I generally let this bookmark reside in the favored book of the moment, so it confers high esteem indeed. Years ago I had to run back to a bus to rescue it, having fallen asleep on the double-decker’s upper level and allowed it to slip out of my book unnoticed. It’s still amongst my most cherished possessions.
Another handmade treasure is the cloth bookmark of a puffin (my favorite bird) that my mother embroidered. It’s a small way of remembering her when we’re over 3600 miles apart; there’s nothing like a gift handmade with love.
My leather and gold-tooled bookmark from Hay-on-Wye, the Book Town to which I paid homage last week, is another favorite. I also have two leather bookmarks from Charles Dickens heritage sites, bringing my total number of Dickens-themed markers to four and reminding me of fun literary pilgrimages from the past ten years in England. Likewise, a laminated whimsical drawing of the Ben & Jerry’s factory is a souvenir of another special place – one of the stops on my honeymoon. Books plus ice cream? Why not?! After all, it’s National Ice Cream Day on Sunday the 21st.
During my master’s year in England, my three Indian suitemates had cleverly brought a fund of small, thoughtful presents, including a stash of lovely bookmarks. They couldn’t have known how perfect their little birthday gift would be for their bibliophile flat mate. I adored my pack of four colorful paisley-print paper bookmarks with gold tassels, and I use them now as a token of an exotic place I’ve never been, but might yet journey someday.
Other bookmarks are more memorable for what they’re made of, or where I found them. I’m particularly partial to my bookmark made of a strip of three vibrant butterfly stamps from Guinea-Bissau, the former Portuguese colony in Africa. And I’ve always been intrigued by my yellowed paper marker which trail a stiff brown ribbon and bears a large letter ‘P’ and the sweet message “May life within her / Book of Happiness / Remember you / The whole year through.” I found it in a 1940s book in the backroom of the charity bookstore where I was a volunteer. Who was the Patty or Petunia who received it, I wonder, and for what occasion?
Like books themselves, bookmarks can be mementoes of a former place and time – a kind of nostalgic window onto one’s personal past.
Do you love bookmarks as much as I do? E-mail photos of your bookmark collection to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll post a selection of the best.
Next week: I survey miscellaneous helpful items of reading paraphernalia.