Future of Bookmarks

With the ascendancy of the e-book, what will become those odd-little bookmarks that to mark the page we last read in paper books? I don’t know if you feel the same, but I’m very particular about the bookmarks I use. They have to be just the right size. I don’t like small ones like the business cards or bus tickets that some readers use; they tend to fall out of books or get lost somewhere, so they are really quite useless. I don’t much care for paper clips that crease the pages of the books I am reading or those printed on flimsy paper that tear or bend easily.

The bookmarks at the legendary Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, Oregon, used to be like that. I never liked them at all and always recycled them whenever I was given one. But Mr. Powell must have taken my displeasure to heart for a few years ago he stiffened up his bookmarks so that they now remain in the books I buy there, rather than on the stack of papers in my recycling box.

One of my favorite bookmarks was given out by a small, independent bookstore in Portland that I had been going to for almost 40 years. Sadly, the bookstore is no longer in business which isn’t surprising given the likes of Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The store had an almost perfect bookmark, one that remained the same during all the years I went there. They kept doling them out from an inventory that must have numbered in the millions and I still have enough for a lifetime of reading.

Every now and then I read a book that is a treasure. Some of these are reference books, like the dictionary or encyclopedia. Others are books of paintings or photographs. These books clearly require one of the cherished bookmarks that I’ve collected over the years in my travels. These usually turn out to be made of thin leather with a calligraphed message or distinctive symbol printed on the front side. Or the book might already include one those colorful ribbon strips that sometimes accompany those really fine and important books, as well as all my red Michelin guides of hotels and restaurants in Italy and France.

These narrow cloth or silk ribbons that are bound into the book at the top of the spine are said to be the eighteenth and nineteenth century precursors of the modern bookmark. It is a mystery why they aren’t included in every book. Wonder of wonders, the Paris Review now includes a bookmark with each issue. Such a simple idea--promote the periodical, aid those who take their time reading the material, point the way to the publisher’s website where the reader can search the archive, listen to poems, and by golly also subscribe. Then again, maybe it is not such a good idea, since if it is widely adopted it will likely be the end of bookmark craftsman, as well as the pleasure of collecting distinctive bookmarks.

I keep my most valued bookmarks in a very special box upon my desk. The box is about the size of an egg carton, opens with a hinged lid, and has always sat upon my desk ever since I received it. It has more than enough room to house all my favorite bookmarks. The lid is appropriately calligraphed with passages about writing: “Writing is nothing more than a guided dream (Jorge Luis Borges). If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it (Toni Morrison). True ease in writing comes from art not chance (Proust).”

Bookmarks have not escaped the wonders of the electronic age either. A 21st century reader can now purchase a digital bookmark with a built-in dictionary, the ever-popular Selco Bookmark Dictionary II. It is said to hold 130,000 words with “definitions thoroughly revised and updated.” They can be had at Amazon for a little over $35. Whoever heard of paying for a bookmark?

The "keypad" of this gadget is no thicker than your ordinary bookmark. However, it is attached at the top to a modest-size LCD screen that not only displays the meaning of words, but also the date and time of day for readers who can’t live without this information. As if that is not enough, it also incorporates a calculator, for readers trying to solve Fermant’s Last Theorem. I have been rendered speechless by the thing. The screen sits up upon the top of the keypad, like Humpty-Dumpty on his wall. I have a feeling it won’t be long before my jazzy new Selco Bookmark Dictionary II will experience a similar fate.

If you prefer to make your own, see this clever suggestion. And for readers ready to upgrade to a four-star deluxe bookmark, I can report that Tiffany’s new bamboo leaf/scarab bookmark in sterling silver is available at the time of this writing. I saw it advertised in the Times a while ago and was duly informed it is designed for bookmark lovers who want to add a touch of glamour to their favorite coffee table book. Each one is carefully embossed with bamboo stalks and a tiny copper and gold beetle. At $120, it would make a perfect gift for all your bookish friends. You don’t live near a Tiffany store? No problem: just go to their online store to order this gem. Better do so before they run out; I am sure the supply is limited.