The smell of an old book. Turning a crisp new page. Scribbling a brilliant note in the margin with your favorite pen. These are sorts of things people will miss when electronic books finally take over. What most people fail to realize, however, is that the real fatality of this technology would most assuredly be bookmarks.
There are close to 250 books floating around my apartment. There are some decorating the mantel, still others on the end table, and I think there’s a box full of them in the closet. 1 In many of these books you can find pieces of paper, tickets, dollar bills, notecards, and football cards that have doubled as bookmarks. Of course there are also many classic bookmarks. Oddly enough, some of these bookmarks I use only for a specific book. If that sounds insane, you should probably hear my theories on aliens and the JFK assassination.
Recently I’ve been using a Brian Baschnagel football card—and I’ll explain why below. Staring at it the other day, I began to wonder what other bookmarks were floating around in all those books. What I found was nothing short of amazing—or at least it was to a guy like me, who spends most of his time reading and writing. 2
About seven years ago I remember pulling John Updike‘s “Rabbit, Run” off the shelf and finding $100 in the pages. Of course that doesn’t happen all the time and I don’t think I was using it as a bookmark, but it’s a great story. I am inclined, however, to use small denominations as bookmarks. In fact, I found four singles in searching through my books. Singles are the perfect bookmark: elongated and flimsy. If they were made with tassels there’d be no reason to spend them.
I found several ticket stubs to Green Bay Packer games over the last several seasons and a ticket to an Avett Brothers concert. 3 My favorite, however, was a ticket to a South Bend Silverhawks game. The date of the game and who they played—it was Cedar Rapids, if you care—aren’t important, but the memory of South Bend is. My girlfriend and I lived there for a year and a half, for most of which I was unemployed. It’s a humbling reminder of a time when things weren’t going great for me. The best part about some of the bookmarks I found was the nostalgia they kickstarted, which was especially heavy with the next ones.
Bookmarks made by Japanese students
There’s nothing like finding bookmarks made by some of my fifth-grade Japanese students from my time teaching there. I often enjoyed too many free periods while teaching and the students would see me reading in the teacher’s room. In all, I was given 12 bookmarks, one for each month of the year. I have them all, but I only have one in a book. It is the December bookmark with a couple snowmen on it and snow falling around them. It will forever remind me of Leo Tolstoy‘s “War and Peace,” which I read while living in Japan. I have always believed that a book is influenced as much by where you read it as when you read it. If the time and setting isn’t right for a book, odds are it will be lost on you. 4 “War and Peace” in the winter of that year helped me cope with the culture around me and filled gaps of time that would have otherwise been impregnable. That snowman bookmark will forever be linked with Tolstoy’s masterpiece.
Bookmarks from used bookstores
If you ever have the opportunity to visit Myopic Books in Chicago, don’t miss the opportunity. It’s one of my favorite used bookstores. They handout bookmarks with their logo on it whenever someone buys a book there. It’s a great marketing tool, but I don’t accept them anymore. I figure half a dozen in the house at one time is good enough. My favorite used bookstore bookmark hails from Aunt Bonnie’s Books in Helena, Montana. I bought a copy of Aldous Huxley‘s “Brave New World” there back in 2010. But the real memory is that of going out in Helena that night. I got so drunk I could’ve licked Paul MacLean. 5 Somehow I befriended this government worker during the binge and we ended up barhopping. Let’s just say there are some seedy and scary spots after one in the morning when it’s January in Helena.
I found a Barry Bonds Sportsflics card in raggedy copy of “King Lear.” I’m quite certain that might be the first time in recorded history where both those names appeared in the same sentence. But my favorite sportscard bookmark is my Brian Baschnagel 1981 Topps football card. Two summers ago, a friend invited me to lunch before a day game at Wrigley. He was eating with some friends before the game. One of his friends brought a business partner and it happened to be former Chicago Bears wide receiver Baschnagel. He spent about an hour telling stories about his playing days. He was an awesome guy and it was a true pleasure to meet him. I was at an antique store recently and I flipped through an old box of cards. I bought his for 15 cents with the intention of giving it to my friend. But I’m afraid the card is destined to be a bookmark forever.
I couldn’t decide on just one.
The first is a traditional bookmark and I don’t recall where it came from. It is a laminated piece of cardboard with a Margaret Mitchell stamp and a quote from the author. It reads: “In a weak moment I decided to write a book.” That might be one of my favorite quotes of all time. 6 To be honest, I’ve never read “Gone With the Wind” and I probably never will. But that quote is fantastic.
The other I keep lodged in the pages of J.D. Salinger‘s “Catcher in the Rye.” Though the book might be infantile and pathetic to me these days—having re-read it a few years ago and despising Holden Caulfield’s inert inactivity—it remains to this day one of my favorite books. It shaped me as a reader and writer from the moment I read it sophomore year of high school. A friend of mine that I’ve lost contact with once sent me a letter in college. 7 He was one of the smartest guys I have had the pleasure to know. On the flap of the manila envelope of the letter he had written a Caulfield quote: “I am kind of paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy.” No matter what I think of Caulfield or of the author’s self-imposed exile—which I think was sort of selfish in many ways—it’s impossible not to love that quote.
The only question I have after this pointless exercise is whether any of you might know where I can find a laminator?
- Of course those are the books I don’t care to display. Many times I wonder if I read because I enjoy it or if it’s because I want to showoff? It’s an interesting theory that not enough readers actually ponder. ↩
- Read: surfing the internet after searching the phrase “how to write a novel.” ↩
- Never heard them? You should start here. ↩
- Of course it could be just a shitty book, but hang with me here. ↩
- Save it. I know it took place in Missoula, but I really wanted to make that joke. ↩
- Certainly my favorite has to be Edward Abbey when he wrote, “Your criticism is greatly appreciated, but fuck you all the same.” ↩
- I was a sophomore before we got campus-wide email, so forgive us for trying to stay in contact the old-fashioned way. ↩