The Secret Life of a Bookmark

What happens when you place a bookmark between the pages of a book? Surely the answer is that it waits faithfully for your return, at the place you left it, ready to indicate to you the page at which you should resume your reading. But does it?

Despite appearances to the contrary, a bookmark left in a book is not stationary, but in fact is moving closer to the front with each passing day, word by word, paragraph by paragraph, page by page. Furthermore, the greater the complexity and depth of the fictional universe, the more complex the narrative and more numerous the characters, the faster does this invisible journey occur, as the previously-read facts slip from our memory. Take this to its conclusion, and if you leave the bookmark alone for long enough, then there’ll be nothing for it but to restart reading from the very beginning of book.

It must have happened to us all, the physical corpus of the bookmark remained exactly where you left it, but when you opened the book at the indicated position, everything printed there seemed foreign and unfamiliar. It’s as if on selecting the bookmark you create a secondary and shared consciousness that exists between you and it. The bookmark, previously inanimate, is now animated by this communal soul, and it’s this spirit that is really marking your progress through the book. Perhaps it’s a three-way split, a biblio-trinity of you, the bookmark and the front cover, which cover exerts an irresistible pull over the the bookmark and inexorably drags it forward.

Given the depth of this relationship that we form – one which forges a spiritual bond with us, becoming nothing less than a surrogate for memory, our emissary in the world of the novel – it is strange that we often show remarkably little care when choosing it: a recent receipt from the supermarket, a used train ticket, a postcard received just that morning. Occasionally we might deign to use a beautiful piece of leather expressly designed for the task, such as this Medieval owl design from the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Medieval owl bookmark

Medieval owl bookmark from the Bodleian Library shop, Oxford

This is the usual way of things then, and in spite of our haphazard selection, it always seems to turn out fine. Return to the book frequently enough, and it will have slipped back only a few words, a paragraph at most. Within this margin of error, the bookmark has behaved as expected. More or less.

If we allow, however, the possibility of this reverse motion, what’s to say it can’t go the other way? It certainly seems like it’s a necessary corollary. If so, how? Under what circumstances could this happen?

Imagine now, that class of books that are essentially plot-driven rehashes of already extant novels, the trashy thrillers, crime or romance novels of the world. In any given sentence there will be no revelatory prose that’s worth reading for it’s own sake as a piece of miniature poetry, the characters are carbon copies of others we have already encountered, and the book could almost be reduced to a précis of the plot. For such a book, any discussions you might happen to hear that reveal the plot developments would be transmitted to the bookmark, any reviews you read, cultural references, parodies, affectionate or otherwise, would increase yours and the bookmark’s knowledge of the book. In response, the bookmark would begin to inch its way toward the back of the book. Hear enough, and you won’t have to actually read a single word.

In Italo Calvino’s categorisation, humorously outlined in If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, these would be the Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written or Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too.

So, the next time you’re reading a novel – perhaps whilst sitting in bed and you happen to notice that it’s late and therefore time to go to sleep – and you gently insert a bookmark and put the book to one side, just remember that while you might be sleeping, the bookmark isn’t, and is instead diligently making its way back to the front. Where it stops when you wake, is a secret between the two of you.

The Book Collector and his Tools

In Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s fascinating novel The Dumas Club, the book collector Fargas sits among his treasured collection of antique books, which are now distributed as a secondary carpet atop many rugs, as if the long-ago pulped trees were trying to grow anew. Trapped by difficult financial circumstances he is forced to gradually plunder this rich forest and sell off his famous collection book by book, though mercifully not page by page.

The Dumas Club by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

A literary noir fiction, perfect for all true booklovers.

Faced with the alternatives of divesting a large quantity of books of low value, or a few volumes of great value, he chooses thus:

“I have to sell one book each time. And not just any one. The sacrifice has to ensure that the rest are safe for another six months… It’s my tribute to the Minotaur.”

But not just the most valuable in commercial terms, it is his favourites that must be sacrificed:

“My hands? What you mean is my soul burns in the torments of hell. I thought I’d explained… The book to be sacrificed can never be one to which I am indifferent. What meaning would this painful act have otherwise? A sordid transaction determined by market forces, several cheap ones instead of a single expensive one…”

Any bibliophile can surely understand his point of view, even if we might not agree. And then, even if we did agree in principle, acting in accordance might still not be possible.

However, with all his books spread out over large areas of floorspace, how was Fargas to know where each book could be found? A collector of his obsessiveness had surely constructed an intricate mental map, to be navigated at will and containing every salient fact and a few others besides, but what are the rest of us to do? Or how would we know the monetary value (literary value being something entirely other) of our entire collection, for example, if pressed to provide such an answer for insurance purposes?

We need not approach the task unequipped. A friend pointed me to the iOS app Book Crawler, from Chiisai App Solutions, which for only $1.99 will help you catalogue your literary treasures.

To add a new book to your inventory, the easiest method is to point your iPhone’s camera at the barcode/ISBN number and let Book Crawler retrieve the other information for you. The only thing that remains is to type in the price that you paid for the particular edition. After that, you can add additional tags and categories to further refine your organisation, if you so wish.

There are other features to the app such as sharing your collections with others and linking to Goodreads, though I personally don’t use them. For me, it’s all about the ease of cataloguing. However, as quick and easy as the app makes it, the initial documenting of all your books is still going to take a few hours (this is still orders-of-magnitude faster than doing things manually), and I don’t think there’s any escaping that fact. Once it’s out of the way though, every additional purchase is easily accommodated in a matter of seconds. For those with children, perhaps this is a perfect means of exchanging pocket money for odd-jobs, or, for all of us, why not treat this, not as a chore, but as an opportunity to revisit those half-forgotten books that surely languish on all of our bookshelves. Or stand for a few moments and allow yourself the pleasure of remembering the time and place that you first read a favourite book.

But however you choose to do it, and whether your collection of books is large or small, I hope that you are never faced with the same scenario as Fargas; may your books only leave your hands willingly.

Note: In the interests of disclosure, I have no connection to the developers of Book Crawler. The software is also available for the iPad and Mac OS X , but as I’ve only used the iPhone version, I can’t comment on their suitability or any differences that might exist between them and the iPhone manifestation. As ever, caveat emptor.