Mark My Words

  • By Anne Cassidy
  • February 19, 2024

On the many ways to keep your place in the pages.

Mark My Words

They’re plain and fancy, silly and sweet. I seldom buy them but treasure them just the same. I’m talking about bookmarks, the unsung heroes of my reading life. They keep me on task; they keep me honest. Did I finally finish that chapter? Seems like I’ve been reading it forever. No, says the bookmark. You’re only halfway there.

I took a quick inventory of my current bookmarks the other day and found a single layer of two-ply tissue, a magazine-subscription card, a rubber band, and, finally, what you would call a proper bookmark. It was one of those novelties that bookshops keep on the counter to catch the eyes of impulse buyers. “Be Alert,” it reads. “The world needs all the lerts it can get.”

This falls into the “sentimental bookmark” category because I’ve had it so long, someone near and dear must’ve given it to me. Others in that group include an elegant, gold-tasseled item that reads, “Mothers hold their children’s hands awhile & their hearts forever” and a homemade bookmark fashioned years ago by one of those very children. It’s crayoned in sky blue and has a tiny pinhole in its middle from when I once stuck it on my bulletin board. No book for this bookmark.

I have other markers you might call decorative, including one from the Museum of Modern Art, a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired design in brass. This is not to disparage pretty, store-bought bookmarks. They make great gifts. But I seldom use them. I’m more likely to find one tucked beside a row of books than in one.

Instead, I’ll grab almost anything to mark my place, a corner of newsprint, a piece of junk mail. I don’t think it’s the same principle that makes me save a new sweater for a special event that never comes. It’s more about timing. The fancy marker simply isn’t around when I need it.

One type of bookmark that’s always handy is the bookstore freebie. (Maybe its being stuck in a book at purchase ups its chances of staying there.) I have bookmarks from Powell’s, the Strand, and places no longer with us: Haslam’s in Florida, Olsson’s in DC, and a store I’d forgotten until I found its marker in an ancient paperback — Annie’s Book Stop, 125 Main Street, “across from the Groton Inn.” I once lived in Groton, Massachusetts, and miss it still. The marker brings it back to me.

Some bookmarks are eager to be useful. One from Third Place Books in Seattle includes white space on the back labeled “Notes” for jotting down page numbers and ideas. This is a genius move, underlining the dual nature of bookmarks, at least for me: They not only mark a place but also capture the silent conversation between reader and story.

The library-checkout receipt does this well, too, its bare flipside perfect for notetaking. Sometimes, if I own the book and am feeling lazy, I turn down a corner to mark a passage I want to remember. The fold becomes another type of bookmark, a subtle sign of engagement with the page. A much-loved book gets fatter each time it’s consumed.

It’s important, of course, to distinguish between bookmarks and other items that live between the pages of a book — such as the stray business card or appointment reminder. For years, I pressed flowers in my hefty one-volume Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Petals fluttered to the floor every time I opened it.

But flowers are too delicate to be bookmarks, which must stand guard between a reader and the chaos of the unread page. Like clocks ticking away the hours, bookmarks have charted my course through everything from Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach (224 pages) to Robert Caro’s The Power Broker (1,344 pages). They record my progress; they keep my place.

If only there were bookmarks for life.

Anne Cassidy has been published in many national magazines and newspapers, including the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Christian Science Monitor. She blogs daily at A Walker in the Suburbs.

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