In praise of bookmarks

March 25, 2022 2 Comments

If you’re like me, at any given time you’ll have several half-read books lying about, probably in different parts of your house or flat.  Each book will have a place-holder inserted to remind you where to resume reading.  Unless you’re one of those people who turn down the edges of pages to keep their place – the less said about them the better – or unless you’re reading your book on a Kindle or other electronic device, in which case you may have the use of some kind of digital ersatz-marker.

The bookmark – the earliest one to survive dates from the sixth century – lies at the heart of this network of interrupted acts.  A small but long rectangle of paper, it sits tight where it was left, without doing any damage to the book or its structure, and quietly does its job of making up for your defective memory.  This may seem a cruel way of putting it, but if we’re honest we wouldn’t need a bookmark at all if we’d been paying proper attention to the text immediately before we last left off reading it.  We’d instantly remember where to restart, and carry on reading it with full attention until we next came to the next pause, and so on.  So the presence of a bookmark is an implicit confession that we’re disrespecting our book, and its writer.  The author is under the innocent impression that we’re registering and savouring every sentence, whereas in reality the words bounce into our heads and bounce out again, leaving barely a trace, and certainly not a memory of which words have been read and which unread.

But I don’t need to make excuses: the fact is, I just have a poor memory, and so I need bookmarks.  By now I’ve got nearly a hundred of them, stored up over the years.  Only the ugly and badly designed get thrown away.

Of course, you don’t have to use a specially designed bookmark.  Any scrap of paper will do.  And I have a few bookmarks of this kind in my collection.  Some instantly bring back memories: a boarding pass, dated 26 August 2005, from Longyearbyen to Tromsø; an admission ticket to the Harris Jazz Club, Krakow; a woodcut of the Martello tower at Sandycove, Dublin; a leaflet from the Kauri Museum, Matakohe.  Others are more mysterious, like a tiny voucher offering £1.00 off a ladies blow dry at Snips, Children’s World (‘valid from 26 December 1989 to 24 February 1990’).

Many of the designed bookmarks in my collection, unsurprisingly, came from bookshops.  Again, it’s those from abroad that recall the most vivid recollections – E. Shaver (Savannah), A Capella (Atlanta), Brattle (Boston), Parsons (Auckland) – but in truth all of them, when I look through, them, light up a warm glow in my cerebellum.  Who could feel anything but happy in a bookshop?  We’re lucky in Wales that so many independent bookshops have survived and even flourished, and their bookmarks are well represented: Ystwyth Books (Aberystwyth), The Hours (Brecon), The Cinema Bookshop (Hay-on-Wye) and the wonderful Pen’rallt Gallery Bookshop (Machynlleth).  Lots come from London, including Daunt, Foyles and Hatchards, Judd Books and Unsworths (Bloomsbury), Pages (Hackney) and The Bookseller Crow (Crystal Palace: ‘no robots since 1997’).   A few no longer exist, at least under their former names: Heffer (Cambridge: this one must date back to my student days), Alphabetstreet and The Internet Bookshop.

Occasionally publishers produce bookmarks to coincide with the launch of new books.  Two excellent examples are Branwen Davies’s Melinau gwlan / Woollen mills of Wales from the late lamented Gwasg Gomer, and Seren Books’s sinister red bookmark to advertise Tiffany Atkinson’s book of poems, Kink and particle.  Art galleries are good value: I’ve a spectral image of Francis Bacon’s painting trousers, and another of his orange paint-covered spoon, from the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin, and a magnetic bookmark from the National Gallery of Ireland, also in Dublin, showing Goya’s gorgeous and melancholy portrait of Antonia Zarate. 

Almost all the bookmarks I’ve picked up myself, but occasionally they arrive as presents. ‘Ostia antica’ and ‘Cultura Italia’ I treasure as gifts from a good friend, long dead.

Libraries are a reliable source of bookmarks.  The National Library of Wales had a specially good line, including one advertising an exhibition of paintings by Alistair Crawford in 2009.  Others came from the Library of Congress and the Linen Hall Library, Belfast (a rare and finely printed leather bookmark, with tasselled bottom edge).  But my favourite is one I found in the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand / Te Puna Matauranga O Aotearoa.  It shows part of a photograph of Alexander Turnbull himself, his brother Robert and their friend Ernest Hadfield.  They’re sitting, richly-moustached, in a cluttered Victorian billiard room in the Turnbull family home, Elibank, on The Terrace in Wellington, sometime in the 1890s.  It looks as though all’s well in their world.  I like to think they might be discussing a fine point of bibliography: after his death in 1914 Alexander Turnbull’s large collection passed to the National Library to form the core of its New Zealand collections.

I tend to keep the Turnbull bookmark and a few others for books of special quality or interest; lesser books attract more ordinary examples.  But all of them deserve their place in the collection.  New additions arrive.  And from time to time older bookmarks reappear, wedged in books I take down from the shelves – damning evidence that I never got to the end of reading them.

Comments (2)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Julia Edwards says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this Homage to the Bookmark – and the memories that the more ‘basic’ ones provide. I too find those tiny scraps of paper forced into the ‘gutter’ of the book will have curious ( sometimes intriguing) jottings on them. Pallant House Gallery in Chichester used to provide free bookmarks linked to its exhibitions; these were a delight but are no longer produced. I have kept a few, almost too good to be bookmarks ! I occasionally sell books and recently a purchaser did not want the book, but the accompanying bookmark, provided with book at publication back in the 1960s.
    And turning the corners of pages … my bookseller father used to say that this was ‘criminal’. And it certainly damaged the shelf life of the much borrowed library book.

  2. Rita Tait says:

    Really enjoyed this piece and identified with the problem ……. my ex’s second wife, a Graphic Designer, always does a Xmas card as a bookmark size/shape little drawing with love from the various family members. She has them laminated and they have a small hole punched in the corner for a bit of ribbon. I have a complete set and love to see the progress of her little son who himself became a dad 2 months ago! Nice idea and they never get shabby.

Leave a Reply