Wednesday, January 04, 2006

What do bookmarks say about you?

I found this article through Mark Lindner's . . .the thoughts are broken. . . . Here is the direct link to the article itself, from The Believer. In brief, the article is a musing of what we can learn about readers from the bookmarks they leave behind. Bookmarks here can be anything from the objects we usually think of as bookmarks to more mundane objects like a laundry receipt or a movie ticket stub. Some ideas from the article that stuck with me:
  • "When we are reading, the book is our new land, our frontier; finding the distinctive marks of a previous reading is like discovering a fossilized campfire site or cave-wall drawing; evidence of ancestors." I love that image of a book as a new land, as a frontier. I would say as an undiscovered country if it is the first time you read the book. Unlike the article's author, I rarely find find bookmarks left behind in used books. I guess I must not shop at the right used bookstores. Having said, I have found stray objects now and then. My mother, an avid reader, was notorious for leaving little items in her books that I would discover over time when I got a hold of one of her books. One example was a receipt for the Club de Lectores de Puerto Rico (The PR Readers' Club), a sort of Book of the Month Club long defunct by the time I found the receipt. However, the receipt was actually handwritten with the title of the book and price paid. Apparently my mom ordered the book and then used the receipt to mark her spots.
  • The article focuses on bookmarks, but Atkinson also discusses marginalia and other examples of evidence of previous readers in books. Atkinson mentions the book Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books by H.J. Jackson. I will have to look that one up sometime.
  • "Naturally, store-bought bookmarks, not unlike the polished seashells you can buy in tourist shops, hold no interest for me even if they're found in old books; how could anyone be so orderly and fearful and arid of mind so as to purchase and conscientiously use what should be found once and then found again and again, and thereafter bear the kismet of connectedness?" Atkinson mentions he has friends who collect bookmarks of bookstores that no longer exist. Personally, I like free bookmarks. I have quite a few of them from bookstores and public libraries when I can get them. I do have a couple of store-bought bookmarks, but they have been gifts from friends. I have never bought one myself. Why would I when I can get them for free is the way I see it. These free bookmarks vary in quality from very simple card stock to very ornate. I have bookmarks from public libraries that the libraries bought from ALA to hand out to patrons, and I have bookmarks from public libraries that the libraries have made themselves. I have bookmarks with poems, with little animals on them. One of the books I am reading now has a bookmark with a nice photo of a jaguar and facts about the feline. Since I always have two to four books going at the same time, I have bookmarks on each one of them, all different. While I have accumulated a lot of bookmarks this way, I don't really see it as a collection, more like a nice stock. I tend to use bookmarks until they wear out, at which time I toss them out and grab a new one from the pile. The nice ones that have been gifts, such as a leather one my wife once got me with the serenity prayer (you know, the one about God grant me the courage. . .), or the one my mother got me made by an artisan back in Puerto Rico, I keep at home. The rare ones like that are the exception to my bookmark as disposable rule, if you can call it a rule. I don't like to be without a bookmark, so in my personal journal, I have a few stashed in there in case I grab a new book, and I have not finished a book so as to switch bookmarks over. Sure, I will grab an index card or some other scrap in a pinch, but maybe I am a little too neat to want to leave my receipts out for the world.
  • "But otherwise and generally, bookmarks should be snatched from the jaws of your quotidian life, if only so they could be fished out of the book a half a century later and tell some unintentional but imperative thing about you to whatever book lover had the good grace to cross your bibliophilic path." See my note above as it addresses this idea. I guess I disagree with Atkinson on this one since I don't snatch my bookmarks out of my quotidian life. I guess I won't be telling much to any readers out there who may get a hold of my books someday. As for other readers, hey, just go with what works for you.
  • Something to keep in mind about these bookmarks and other found objects. "Nothing is definitive; this isn't art or science but a societal bridge constructed out of love--love for hopeful readers we never knew, and for the book glue that holds us together." I find the idea of getting a glimpse of someone's life at a given moment fascinating, pure serendipity. However, it looks readers of my stuff may not get as much based on my bookmarks other than bookstores and libraries I visited at various times, or the ocassional bookmark with some information or something quirky. I wonder what such choices would say about me. In addition to the jaguar, I have two from Half Price Books now, and one from Powell's in Chicago. By the way, they are starting to get a bit ragged, but they are still useable. So, ok, I like to shop for cheap books? I don't think that makes me terribly unique. Besides, how would the impression change if I had different ones in my books. Oh well, I will just leave the question for the ages.
  • On the community of readers, this seemed interesting. "When you consider the notion of a community of readers, you might first think of the neurotic fad for book groups--does any phenomena suggest so well a modern insecurity, that Americans now can hardly read by their lonesomes?--or at least a national throng of bookworms all consuming the same bestseller at more or less the same time, during the same summer or Christmas season, or overhyped market moment. But bookmarkery, taken as what we may call sociopoeia, is substantiation of a genuine, invisible society of readership, a vast and silent ecosystem of shared memories, allusionary communication, mutual understanding, communal essence." I am sure that a lot of book club members around the nation will have an issue with Atkinson's remark. However, I do have to say his observation about hype and markets may be valid. Just observe what happens every time Oprah announces her latest selection. Some of my readers may be interested in a note I made on a book about Oprah's Book Club. I would also note the appeal of recent One Book, One City initiatives taking place all over the nation. Personally, I have some mixed feelings about book groups. I love the idea of people coming together to discuss books and share their reading experiences. It's the risk of groupthink that makes me a bit sceptical, as in, if you do not agree with the rest of the group, your reading may somehow be seen as wrong or less valid. My experience a few years back with a particular book group for a class is what triggers this scepticism. We read a particular book which I simply hated for a variety of reasons. I was made to feel somehow something was wrong with me. While I know this experience is not the rule of book groups, it does color my perspective. I do try not to let it bother me too much because I do believe in the overall value of the activity.
Overall, this is an excellent piece of writing, and for readers who enjoy works about books, readers, and reading, this is recommended.


Mark said...

Outstanding job Angel. I guess I've been lucky with "book clubs" the last several years. They have consisted of professors, grad students, a librarian, and the local used bookstore owner. We were all looking to discuss and learn from each other so none of that being made to feel that you are wrong business, but maybe that goes back to Atkinson's comment about being told what to think about what you read.

Angel, librarian and educator said...

Hey Mark, thanks for stopping by. You always pick the most interesting little things to look at. I have not done a book group since that class, mostly because the opportunity has not surfaced. The academic setting somehow does not seem to lend itself as much to the idea unless you make it appealing somehow (like for faculty books in a specific subject, or article discussions, which by the way, your virtual club is a great example). Hmm, maybe it could be something to work (I feel an idea brewing). Best, and keep on blogging.