Journey Through the Plot

While only a few readers place marks in the margin in the books they read, almost all mark their place in a book in some fashion when they put the book down—a slip of paper, a bus ticket, or a bookmark from their favorite bookstore. I had forgotten about the special nature of this practice until a friend recently sent me a beautiful book (Marco Ferreri, 1995. Bookmarks) on the subject of bookmarks. What an unusual subject for a book, I thought. The small volume is much like a catalogue that you would find at a museum.

I’ve asked a few of my reader friends if they have any special preference about the bookmarks they use. One reported she uses any old item that happens to be hanging around, like an old post card, Polaroid, or food stamp pamphlet. Another wrote that she never leaves a bookstore without checking to see if they have a bookmark to add to her rather enormous collection.

On the other hand, another reader friend of mine reports that she has a special fondness for bookmarks that she made herself. She recounted the construction of several when she was at the beach with her daughter and grandchildren. The bookmarks they made that day included glued shells, sand, and seagull feathers. It was a good memory for her.

A variety of bookmarks have made an appearance in works of literature. Louse in Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter was said to be an avid reader who used “hairpins, inside the library books where she had marked her place.” Christine the professor In Tessa Hadley’s short story, Mother’s Son, used a widely employed bookmarking technique: “…books by Rhys and Woolf and Bowen were piled all around her, some of them open face down on the table, some of them bristling with torn bits of papers as bookmarks.”

More recently, and to my relief, the art of bookmarking has been restored to its aesthetic integrity by Michael Ondaatje in Divisadero: “Once Lucien picked up a book that the thief had been reading and saw a sprig of absinthe leaves used as a bookmark. That felt like the only certain thing about the man, and from then on, every few days, the writer carefully noted the progress of the absinthe, making its own journey through the plot.”

The Internet has given birth to new meaning for the word “bookmark.” Now there are digital bookmarks to accompany all those “real world” versions that have given readers such pleasure over the centuries. If you ask someone to describe a bookmark, they are likely to tell you it is one of their favorite Web pages that can be reached by clicking on its link in the browser they are using. Of course, there is nothing aesthetically appealing about these kinds of bookmarks, nor does their appearance vary in any particular respect. They are surely not going to be collected or treasured like the bookmarks of yesteryear, and no one is going to get very choosy about how they look or feel either.

It bothers me a bit to dilute the meaning of an object that is as richly valued as a bookmark that we use in reading a book, so I think it might be a really good idea to find another way to refer to the Web pages that we want to remember. How about webmark, virtualmark or digimark? Any of those terms would do. Don’t they denote more accurately what a Web site is than does the word “bookmark?”

There is even a site on the Web now devoted exclusively to the topic of bookmarks. On this site you will find links to a sizeable number of bookmark collections and exhibitions, documents on the history of bookmarks, and information about exchanging books with other collectors.

Each of the treasured bookmarks in my bookmark collection conjures a memory of the bookstore, the town where it is located, its size, the quality of its collection, the light in the store, and the feeling that comes to me when I am there. In this sense, a bookmark is indistinguishable from any memento, say a photograph or a trinket from a place I have been. Both seek to preserve an experience that was in some way memorable and don’t want to forget. In this way, a bookmark does its part, albeit a small one, to sustain the culture of reading and all that follows from that experience.