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 prĂ©cis 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.