MICHAEL ATKINSON

OTHER PEOPLE’S BOOKMARKS: FELLOW WANDERERS OF A FORGOTTEN REPUBLIC

IN WHICH WE CONSIDER THE LIVES OF STRANGERS BY WAY OF WHAT THEY LEAVE BEHIND IN BOOKS

DISCUSSED: Foreign Objects, Bookplates and Marginalia, Walter Benjamin, Books in the Fourth Dimension, Kismet, A Sixty-Six-Year-Old Birth Announcement, The Wizard of Oz in Alexandria, Jack Pickford, Doodles, Other People’s Mail, Voyeurism, A Mormon Child’s Reading of The Crucible, A Note to a Good Mom, Sociopoeia, The Memory Ecosystem, The Remnants of an American Moment
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

You’re reading, reading a book, and when you’re not reading it, you mark your place. Maybe you simply use the book-jacket flap; if it’s a disposable book or you’re just a heathen, you fold the page corner down. But you usually mark the page with a foreign object, anything from a shred of newspaper to a strip of embossed leather someone bought you at Stonehenge. Often you don’t have much of a choice—because you also have a life outside of that reading, a life of rocket-launched inconvenience and impromptu upheaval, you often have to use whatever’s at hand to hold your space. Indeed, if you have children, then you know interruption like Priam knew Greeks hammering at his door for years and are usually rewarded for your endurance with an array of glitter-and-yarn craft-class bookmarks. But where are they now? You have to put that book down because the dog’s tongue is suddenly stuck to the freezer rack, or the urologist’s nurse has just called you in, or you’re suddenly at your stop and so will end up hustling off the train in a wad of shuffling commuters with only your finger inserted into the book’s crevice.

I wonder about a certain Freeport, Long Island, teacher who was apparently reading John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer (in its first, 1925 Harper & Brothers hardcover) in March 1946, and who designated where he or she paused during the “Longlegged Jack of the Isthmus” chapter (in which, among other things, the threadbare writer struggles with his landlord and his yen for rye) with two items. The first was an onion-skin parental note, delicately written with a fountain pen and folded three times, addressed “To Whom It May Concern” and excusing a certain David Wolsk early from school, at 3 p.m. exactly, for the purposes of a dental appointment. The signature belongs to “(Mrs. S.) Celia G. Wolsk” of 71 New York Avenue, Freeport. The second, nestled in beside it, is a carefully ripped, four-square-inch crib sheet, penciled in minuscule longhand, for what appears to be a seventh-grade biology test (ectoderm, mesoderm, that sort of thing), and, you’d think, rescued from its larcenous test taker by the Dos Passos–reading prof in question. Was it in fact twelve-year-old David Wolsk’s test? Did he plan to defraud the exam and then light out before dismissal for the dentist’s? Or was it, instead, his book? That’s not such a far-fetched notion: teens read at a more sophisticated level sixty years ago (indeed, Latin was still on the docket), and Manhattan Transfer is Dos Passos’s most readable big splash of a book. Did David Wolsk simply show the note and then keep it, and did he ace that biology exam? Or was he caught, reprimanded, flunked, and molar-drilled all in one day?

In either case, and whoever left the complimentary documents hibernating between pages 151 and 152, the reading of Manhattan Transfer went apparently unfinished: either Wolsk, in his just-a-cleaning-today-thanks, school-rooking triumph, neglected the book thereafter, or, more believably, the outraged teacher, in a fit of pique, slammed the book on both papers and never opened it again. Thereafter, the volume sat on someone’s shelf, Master Wolsk’s or his unknown educator’s, for who knows how long, until at some point it found its way back into the broader reading stream like a lost but lucky fish, its impromptu, personalized bookmarks forgotten by all concerned. Some forty-odd years later (what about those intervening years?), I buy the book, proudly stamped “Discarded by Freeport Memorial Library”—without, you could tell, ever having been a library book—at the annual cut-rate book sale. It sits on my shelf for another decade and a half. Open Dos Passos, and suddenly the mystery of that postwar March day—eleven months after the Allies liberated Dachau and Buchenwald—reemerges from the mists.

If this is a story about bookmarks—other people’s bookmarks, others’ impulsive gestures and life-stuff dropped into books like time-capsuled accidents, residual moments left to ferment, their natural, ordinary sugars breaking down and yielding the drunken energy of melancholy—then it’s also a story about time, human passage, memory (or poignant lack of it), and rue, as well as about how all of these are hopelessly entwined with culture’s essence as something we manufacture in order to reach each other. (I say culture because movies, artworks, and pieces of music, whatever their texture and theme, all inherently bemoan the evaporation of their day and age just as books do.) Considering the gauzy weight of Celia Wolsk’s letter or the ambitious anxiety of the crib sheet’s lettering—their express concerns long swallowed by the years—you can see how I may have become, recently, bedeviled by the forgotten bookmark, the telltale remnant of ancient reading uncompleted.

A certain varietal of book lover loves bookdom’s pregnant effluvia: bookplates, book jackets (often worth more to collectors than the books themselves, just as the sleeve to an Elvis 78 rpm outprices the record itself), inscriptions, illustrative plates, handwritten marginalia, doodles, erratum sheets, tear-out catalogue ads (common in 1970s paperbacks, rare today), reviewer-copy press releases, et cetera. All of these are history—personal, literary, cultural, timeless—because they are meant to be ephemeral. When we’re 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. For instance, you don’t know much about incidental graphic euphoria until you’ve thumbed through James P. Keenan’s The Art of the Bookplate (Barnes & Noble), which simply collects the custom-designed ex libris designs of scores of bibliophiles (Freud, Einstein, Houdini, Selznick, et al.), commissioned to artists such as Rockwell Kent, Marcel Duchamp, Kate Greenaway, Oskar Kokoschka, Edwin Davis French, Aubrey Beardsley, and so on, hundreds of engraved, secret minimasterpieces intended only for private libraries, private use, the hidden satisfaction of the very rich and illustrious. Each Herculean minicomposition is an artesian well of forgotten lives, vanished obsessions, spent wealth, and lifetimes lived hard and happy in literature. That we were never supposed to savor them—it’s akin to examining someone’s sock drawer—makes the ardor of the designs all the more beatific, like antique family photos from inside the sighing heart of a fellow reader.

Or take marginalia, a venue of private discourse only lately being examined seriously, and only then by H. J. Jackson, authoress of Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books and the new Romantic Readers: The Evidence of Marginalia. A starry-eyed academic, Jackson attempts the impossible, to understand the private “experience of reading” for Romance-era book nuts by examining their scribbled notes—what they wrote, how they wrote it, how or possibly why they attacked or approved of the printed text they were enjoying. No conclusions are reached except that the democracy of reading, abetted by a nineteenth-century publishing boom and broad educational improvements, was freshly empowered to meet authors head-on in the margins, and that Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose raucously annotated books constitute almost a full quarter of the 1800 volumes consulted by Jackson in her studies, was an incurable marginalistic ham, signing his voluminous notes and even addressing them to readers he was sure the annotations would eventually have. (Jackson’s favorite, understandably, is STC’s obstinate and detailed correction/expansion of a paragraph in Robert Percival’s Account of the Island of Ceylon (1803) in which Percival describes the effects of a commonly used cannabis/opium compound. Coleridge would know.) All told, it is a seductive line of contemplation—in which the supposedly passive and helpless act of reading becomes, actively and without having to resort to Derridean nullifidianism, a dialogue, a fistfight, a timeless and more or less secret debate about fact or judgment or language.

But of all the types of book-mad runoff, the bookmark has the greatest capacity for unintended frisson, offering up not just an act of reading, but beautiful clues as to how that reading, the book itself, intersected with the verities of modern existence in the outside world. Books themselves are more valuable with the lingering love of past readers scarring their pages; given the choice of a new edition of, say, Manhattan Transfer or that 1925 copy, barnacled with eighty years of readerly experience, how could you opt for the new? Who were these readers of my used books, and why did they stop where they did? There’s something Walter Benjamin–ish about a bookmark’s serendipitous, colliding vectors of significance: making real a book’s fourth-dimensional life, sanctifying it as a historical integer that has been held, owned, used, like a tool, and passed on, not merely written, published, and sold. 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? (Like-minded friends of mine make a habit of collecting bookmarks commemorating bookstores that no longer exist, its own kind of saturnine communication with the past. I have one of these: a lovely two-color stub for Books & Co., closed in 1997, discovered in a 1991 English paperback for Dickens’s The Christmas Books, vol II.) I hold to a few personal exceptions to this no-preplanned-marker rule—a handmade strip cut from a tagboard faux-diploma entailing promises to sell war bonds (until “victory is won”), featuring a handily sketched owl and the penned words “I am your Book Marker,” found in the 1941 Little, Brown first edition of James Hilton’s Random Harvest; a reminder from the Brooklyn Tuberculosis and Health Association (dating to the 1960s or earlier, as indicated by the Triangle 5 phone exchange) to buy Christmas Seals, out of a 1930 Standard Book Co. reprint of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Virginibus Puerisque. And best of all, a tattered, 1963-calendared Use Your Public Library Every Day card, left between pages 983 and 984 by my grandfather, upon his death and during his second reading, of a well-trod paperback of William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. 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 century later and tell some unintentional but imperative thing about you to whatever book lover had the good grace to cross your bibliophilic path.

My family has always been quietly entranced by old books and their various ancillary materials; for us, an emporium of used books is to a national chain retailer what a local cucina is to the Olive Garden. But the dawning awareness of the bookmark’s transfixing potential appeared to me late—several years after I found a birth announcement for a girl born in 1937 Mount Vernon, New York, in which book I’ve forgotten, and, after having Googled the sixty-six-year-old woman and found her, working in the Mount Vernon town hall under her maiden name, sent her the precious little announcement in the mail. Now, not remembering even the woman’s name, I curse my philanthropy. When a postcard-sized, eight-page, 1940 movie programme announcing the arrival of The Wizard of Oz to The Royal, Alexandria’s “Only Air Conditioned Cinema,” arose from the middle of a moldering hardcover copy of Paul Rotha’s 1939, W. W. Norton hardcover Documentary Film, I knew it couldn’t have fallen into more appreciative hands. It’s a colonial-era keystone: the cast listing is in French and Arabic, but the May 7 program itinerary notes Gaumont-British News (“The weekly News from Home”), the 1938 Jacques Tourneur short The Face Behind the Mask (“An Historical Mystery”), and Heroes at Leisure, a 1939 “Pete Smith Specialty” about British lifeguards. The “interval” was comprised of a “Musical Interlude on Columbia Records.” The front page is taken up by a pitch for the next attraction—George Cukor’s The Women, a black-&-white publicity shot of Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and Rosalind Russell grinning; ads for gas tablets, spas, chocolate, florists, and nightclubs fill in the rest. The Royal’s phone number, if you should need it, was 26329. (Add a 48 prefix to that today and you’ll get the Royal, still standing and open for business on what is now Al-Horreya Street.) Considering the dates, it then seems possible that Rotha’s sensible if rudimentary book had only one reader before me, a wartime Alexandrian colonial who’d just come from the Emerald City with Judy Garland’s adolescent throb quavering in his head, and who, perhaps having lost his taste for the nascent form of documentary after seeing Oz’s flying monkeys and flower-dozing Munchkins, set the book on his shelf and never again noticed it.

Once I began to look, unremembered objects leapt from my books, which I’ve been amassing by the thousands, used and old, bought and stolen, without necessarily checking them for secrets, since I’ve been a preteen. I went room to room, thumbing through any book I remembered buying used. It took a few weeks. I found nothing of importance or intrinsic value. There were photographs—two simple black-and-white, three-inch-by-three-inch portraits of an icy valley landscape, notationless but printed on “Rose Magna Print” paper, found in a 1965 Atheneum paperback edition of Peter Weiss’s The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. The book belonged to “Elsa Raven (nun)” and was obviously a production copy, containing mountains of scribbled notes and inserted edits. This was no absurdist-theater-rehearsing Carmelite: Raven is a still-busy actress (she’s done every form of TV in forty years and has had key roles in Back to the Future, Titanic, Fearless, etc.), and obviously played the play’s “Sister” (the edits knocked it down from several to one) despite the fact that Weiss called for the nuns to be “played by athletic-looking men.” What production of Marat/Sade this involved I could not say, no more than where the pictures were taken or how old they are. We could ask Raven.

My 1924 first edition of H. G. Wells’s The Dream was marked early on—page 25, where the demigod humanoid Sarnac, in continuing to reiterate his dream of being a twentieth-century man, begins to describe the odd arena of elementary school—by a still from a movie meticulously snipped from a cheap fan magazine; beside a game of cards and chips, a banana-curled girl examines the open mouth of a suited young man, the spitting image of Jack Pickford, seated on the floor beside her. On the opposite side is a fragment of a review of J. P. McGowan’s 1917 serial The Railroad Raiders, and since Pickford made ten films that year, I tend to think it’s him. Who was this Jack Pickford fan, already subject to the matinee idol’s dope-heavy scandals and declining career, and yet so faithful as to keep this strange, already seven-year-old newsprint image from a favorite movie as a bookmark? What happened in or soon after 1924 that made him or her shrug off such ardor? An old-school semiotician—or Greil Marcus—could write a small book about how Wells’s post-utopian fantasia might comment on Pickford’s crash-and-burn version of the American Dream—a connection made only in the mind of a single reader-slash-film-fan, and even then only by way of his/her thoughtlessness.

But I know the origins of one photo, a color snapshot of the Pantanal in Brazil—specifically, under dusky clouds, a patch of struggling trees surrounded by floodwaters and occupied by several dozen cormorants. This was one of three travel photographs given to me in college (circa 1983) by an utterly lovely Brazilian girl named Tatiana before she shook me off like a chest cold and married a friend of mine also majoring in film. It’s her handwriting on the back, informing me where (Mato Grosso do Sul) and when (July ’82). Being something of a cabalistic sentimentalist, I held onto the photos and, sometime after college, crammed this image into Russell Hoban’s Pilgermann, a book I gave up on in the first fifty pages after having read Riddley Walker and not understood it to any notable degree. It was all lost like light rain on loose and aching soil. Two decades later, the cormorants are on my desk. I’ve heard since she has had several children, and that her first son is named Indiana.

I’ve unearthed doodles: an old, crumbling book page with ballpoint designs surrounding a scripted “La De Da” in my 1977 paperback of Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior; a “Memo from the Desk of Ted Kostew” from his office at Penthouse Studios, “a complete art and production service” outfit on 57th Street where a hotel stands today, from the 1944 Random House anthology Great Tales of Terror & the Supernatural, its ’60s-style letterhead containing only a simple, amorphous pencil loop—a nascent design idea—repeated on the back side. There are business cards: a defunct Boulder Creek, California crafts gallery, left in Philip Roth’s The Breast; a tarnished card for one Nancy J. Shepherd, once an editor at W magazine, buried in the 1972 “4th impression” of Anthony Birley’s Life in Roman Britain; the not-so-old card for the local oral surgeon who removed my daughter’s mucocele, twice, found in Irving Howe’s posthumous A Critic’s Notebook, in the “On Gratuitous Detail” essay. There is even a late-’60s “FM Dial Card,” found aptly enough in the 1966 Dell paperback The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience, which outlines New York’s FM stations on one side and pushes long-lost easy-listening stalwart WRFM-NY on the other (the “typical” playlist, boasted the card, included Lawrence Welk, Mantovani, the Ray Conniff Singers, and Jackie Gleason crooning “Hawaiian Wedding Song”).

Some juxtapositions are too sweet to believe: the pristine missionary card (#147 of its series, from the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity, no year), asserting (below a cuckoo clock graphic) that “For every minute you are angry you loose [sic] sixty seconds of happiness.” This, in a 1929, Translation Publishing Company students’ edition of Corneille’s El Cid, a tale of anger and (albeit honorable) unhappiness, owned by a Fordham student named Joseph Fenari. Then there’s the leather-bound, utterly dilapidated 1929 volume of The World’s Greatest Romances (Walter J. Black, Inc.), transcribed “To Anna, from Bea, Xmas 1932,” in which Pushkin’s “Seduction” was marked by a eulogy-cluttered memoriam card honoring the 1931 passing of a sixty-five-year-old Queens pastor—his picture suggests Pat O’Brien with a compacted colon—named Andrew Klarmann, Ph.D., Litt. D. Anna may’ve loved and missed her Father Klarmann, but was not so pious that she did not slide his bearishly choleric mien into Pushkin’s despairing drama of venery and consequence, and leave him there forever.

But for obvious reasons, little is as evocative as other people’s mail, which is where the simple act of sifting through discarded books veers disconcertingly close to voyeurism—an act of retroactive invasiveness. From a 1966 “TIME Reading Program special edition” reprint of Walter Kerr’s The Decline of Pleasure sprang, pleasurably enough, a faded postcard for the El Patio Motel outside of Boulder, Colorado, from which a certain vacationing Lorraine, in July 1973, wrote T. & M. Rabinowitz of E. 24th St., Brooklyn, that “we sure love Colorado!” and that “I am taking good care of your daughter & sheltering her from the evils of this cruel world. Really all is great.” Lorraine even drew a rough approximation of the Rockies on the card’s top edge, over the six-cent Eisenhower stamp. (Like the Royal, the El Patio is still open for business, though is now named the 7 Star.) And yet the postmark reads Williams, Arizona, more than four hundred miles away from Boulder—did Lorraine just forget to send her mail until the trip had progressed southwest, or is there a forgotten story? Cut to: Mrs. Rabinowitz in Midwood, perhaps not worrying very much, reading Kerr’s plea for contemplative relaxation and indulgence, pausing perhaps to watch children play in hydrant spray outside, and then, with the postcard absentmindedly disappearing into the book’s quicksand, moving on with her life.

Another sentimentalist, my wife, whom I’ve seen mist up over finding a parental inscription in an old copy of Heidi that offered the gift to a daughter “for better grades and trying so hard,” recently couldn’t help but buy, last year from a used-book store in Dayton, a 1960 copy of Black Beauty, published by a small outfit in Racine, Wisconsin, called Whitman Publishing. It just happened to be the exact edition she loved as a girl, but there was also a postcard waiting inside, dated December 27, 1969, the front image belonging to seashells bordering around a perfectly awful, six-quatrain poem called “The Story of Shells.” To Miss Teresa Jones of Waynesville, Ohio, one Mrs. Cook summed up her vacation on Satellite Beach (“going to hunt shells to-morrow, went swimming on Christmas”), and thanked Miss Teresa for a calendar, which “will have a place in my kitchen.” You can practically smell the whiff of sulphur as the idyllic, middle-class Eisenhower era is burned away, sense the lingering postwar comfort of Americanness, find redemption in the Renoirian satisfaction with simple, kind human contact. The thing to do here is return the mark to the book, give it to my eleven-year-old daughter, and let her find it herself.

But the most heartbreaking correspondence I’ve found is one that was never mailed: in a wrinkled paperback of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a rooftop photograph of Temple Square in Salt Lake City, with this missal schoolboy-penned on the back: “DEAR ANN, THE DOMED BUILDING ON THE LEFT OF THE PICTURE IS THE MORMON TABERNACLE. INSIDE IS A MAGNIFICENT ORGAN FROM WHICH I HEARD A RECITAL, INCLUDED WAS A PIECE BY PURCELL. I THOUGHT YOU’D BE INTERESTED. LOVE, DANNY.” Danny never wrote in Ann’s address or affixed a stamp; the right side of the card is a ghostly blank. The card has no copyright date, but the cars coasting around SLC suggest the mid-1960s. But what to make of Danny, whose handwriting suggests a ten-year-old, yet whose devout interest in baroque music, Purcell, and Arthur Miller bespeak a hungry mind? (And how would a conscientious Mormon child come to grips with The Crucible, anyway?) Is it a coincidence that Miller’s play is set in 1692, during baroque composer Purcell’s autumn years and greatest fame? Was Ann interested, and if so, did Danny have any inkling of his great fortune, to know a girl who shared his mature and peculiar interests? Most pressing of all, what kept him from mailing the card? Had the ardent adolescent flower already died on the vine? Did Danny know all too well that Ann wouldn’t be as interested as he wished she were?

Just as bookmarked books are, almost by definition, unfinished (I suppose one might stick something in a book for some other reason, after one has read it or without ever having read any of it at all, but this is uncommon enough so as to be considered inconsequential), the incomplete documents tell archaeological stories about lives still in flux. 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. A treasurable copy of Nordhoff and Hall’s Faery Lands of the South Seas (1921, the long-defunct Garden City Publishing) offered up a small gift card—“For You,” a toy castle graphic—inside of which was fountain-penned “Here you be, dear—may it soothe your flight qualms. Joan.” My copy of Kenneth Koch’s Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry (1970) held, predictably, a small sheet of notebook paper, Koch-prepped for a poem: “Being an animal or a thing” a penciled heading reads, and the single word “elephant” appears by itself further down; no poem manifested, however. The hardcover edition of Dostoyevsky: Reminiscences (Liveright, 1975), written by the widow Anna, contained a yellowed sheet of Boynton stationery, with this jotted down in pencil: “R—But what did Anna think of Fyodor? Was he an overbearing, Russian pain-in-the-ass? Read this & find out! D.”

The Avon paperback (1978) of Joseph Goebbels’s diaries titled Final Entries 1945 calved up another book’s worth of dramatic material: first, a card fashioned by a preschooler out of ditto scrap paper—“To Mom, I Like You!” in purple crayon, garlanded by pink Xs and Os—which inside read (in amber) “Mom is a good cooker she is a good mom.” Wrapped inside of this is an 1979 Amtrak stub from NYP (Pennsylvania Station) to PJC (New Jersey’s Princeton Junction) and a personal list, softly penciled on the same scrap paper as the child’s note but definitely the work of an earnest adult, of fierce self-examination. “What I Will Give” it begins, enumerating “Prayer, Honesty, Consideration to what you say”; in return, the “expect” docket runs down “prayer, openness, honesty, challenge.” A “Background & beliefs” column is neglected; below it, a “Now” roster lists “Not living up,” “Resources low,” “not able to overlook—petty,” “hopeless—I’ll get back, situations change.” What situation? The “Dir.” column provides some idea: “journey—not able to discern,” “Considered 2 yrs.,” “Talk in Sept.,” and then the firecracker: “Reasons for not asking—other exps., patronizing, fear, no! 21⁄2 mos.—nothing posit.” What exactly our anxious, Princeton-bound notetaker was trying to avoid asking can only be guessed at, but prayer, explicated in a bottom corner, was seen as a vital helpmeet: “Christian giving—Cor., Titus—project, Galatians 6—Free in Christ, Spirit & Human Nat., Romans 8.” A proposal seems to have been in the offing—given the long-term perspective of earnest Christians and the prevalence of debate about circumcision in both Galatians and Titus—but the list’s rangy, rationalizing wishy-washiness leads me to believe the marriage never coalesced. All of this and more—who knows what passion and damage lurked between the lines—stuck in Goebbels’s diaries where, in March ’45, the erstwhile Minister of Propaganda and Enlightenment recounted the Nazis’ minor military successes in Slovakia.

Today, 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 even read by their lonesomes?—or at least a national throng of bookworms all consuming the same best seller 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. You could, if you so required, find salvation in the shreds of detritus that find their way into your books, telegrams from a stranger of the dim and lovely past, informing you of your presence in the company of compatriots.

Naturally, my book-buying habits abruptly, but perhaps only temporarily, changed: I began scouring used-book store shelves for the peeking tips of bookmarks, or even faintest hint of separation in its closed pages. I’ve discovered that biographies, of which I’ve inspected hundreds, at home and at large, are rarely marked; the same goes, predictably, for short-story collections. Plays, as we’ve seen, are commonly marked. History books often have a way of depleting a reader’s store of forward motion and therefore tend to harbor slugs, while topical nonfiction is popularly stuffed with pertinent clippings (a copy of the New American Review 12, the 1971 issue that featured A. Alvarez’s Sylvia Plath memoir, carried a contemporaneous New York Post article about the burgeoning Plath cult; my hardcover Associated Press edition of the Warren Commision Report held a trimmed article about ex-CIA-op George O’Toole’s 1975 stress tests on Lee Harvey Oswald’s recorded statements). Only one reference volume, the 1927 Lippincott edition of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, revealed a marker—a newspaper column from The Detroit News recounting a party held for the eighty-nine-year-old Mrs. Emma A. Fox, published in 1937. On the reverse side, FDR and Congress were swapping insults about the unbalanced Federal budget.

Unsurprisingly, I’ve found only one bookmark in nearly a thousand volumes of poetry—keeping your place necessitates first that you care which page you just read and that the next must follow in sequence—but it’s a sweetheart: in the 1958 Doubleday hardcover of Theodore Roethke’s Words for the Wind, a tiny receipt-stub from the Martha Washington Motel in Providence Forge, Virginia—no longer there, nor is there much else, apparently, in Providence Forge—dated April 1971, room 4, $12.48 paid, signed by Jenson. Someone, and if I only knew who, read Roethke in this scrubby motel room in the verdant overgrown-ness of northern Virginia—perhaps on the way to visit a loved one at the Powhatan Correctional Center up the road, taking a deep emboldening breath that morning in the curtained room smelling of must and plaster, Roethke whispering,

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

I know that this bewitchment by the material pasts of books, with the rare nimbus of fraternity they create in a rampagingly commodified and capitalized human landscape, is hardly just mine—do not scores of Americans engage in “bookcrossing,” registering books on websites and then deliberately leaving them on subway benches or coffee shop tables for others to find, read, and register? One site documenting intersections like this calls it an exercise in “fate, karma, or whatever you want to call the chain of events that can occur between two or more lives and one piece of literature,” the piece of literature in question being the book itself—with a bookmark?—not simply its written text. Just such a “chain” has already turned up as a plot device in one Hollywood movie: Serendipity, where a paperback of Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera serves as cosmic linchpin between interrupted lovers John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale.

Do not used-book stores keep appearing, despite the well-known inability of such enterprises to support themselves? Is there not a magazine called FOUND, to which readers send in any orphan item they’ve discovered “on the city bus, at Kinko’s, on the street, in restaurants, in the waiting room, in the bowling alley parking lot, in the woods, in the prison yard…”? (As I write, the FOUND website features a 1960s roadside picnic photo recovered from a New Zealand dumpster, a scrawled list of crackhouse rules from Portland, Maine, and a devastating, pen-scratched itinerary of possible activities found in Arlington, Massachusetts, running from “Go for a walk with someone,” “Talk to someone,” and “Play Playstation 2” to “Go to the cemetery and talk to my mom.”)

We may think nothing of leaving something behind—why not, it’s the no-big-deal life we’re living right now, right?—but finding a tissue sample of another person’s fears and desires can awaken us from our miniature struggles. We can suddenly see the forest. Imagine my surprise when I asked my local librarian in Greenlawn, Long Island, about a bookmark my wife had inadvertently left in a returned book, and she heaved from under the front desk a thick folder of bookmarks the library has pulled from returned books over the years and, because they seemed to be of some personal value, held onto them, in case the reader in question returned, looking. Driver’s licenses, personal checks, and mail warrant an easy phone call, but the bulk of the folder held abandoned family snapshots and, I’m told, because the most forgetful readers are the elderly, mass cards. The librarians regaled me with tales of clean tissues, homework, poetry, mortgage bills, shopping lists, pet sympathy cards, and, once, a $50 bill.

Is this standard practice? I called several dozen libraries randomly, in New York and nationally, and though many admitted to having lost-&-found boxes holding gloves, glasses, and photocopy originals, very few of the librarians I was lucky enough to get on the phone seemed to grasp the romance of the idea. An industrious charmer in Blue Point, Long Island, said once they’d found a jeweled pin forgotten in a returned book. Someone in St. Louis reported a taxidermied strip of fox fur but not what book it marked.

I’d like to know many of these people—the student who was reading a weary 1961 paperback of St. Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle and left a ditto scrap inside with the words “Enlarged Heart” penned out minutely in script, or whomever thought it vital to insert the 1967 New York Times obit for Soviet commander Marshal Rodion Malinovsky into the Harcourt Brace & Co. edition of The Red Army (1956). Carmen Peart, whose undated registration card for the City College (she was aiming to graduate in January 1970) was lodged in my cheap 1965 Rinehart edition of Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, must’ve been a treasurable, serious little firecracker, with her defiant handwriting, interest in Butler, seven English classes and six credits of Latin, and the absence of mind to forget to fill in her borough (Brooklyn) after her Hart St. address. I’d certainly like to know more about the man—surely it was a man—who kept his place in the 1992 paperback I have of O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra with a $2, March 1966 betting stub from the Caliente racetrack in Tijuana, suggesting that the at-least-twenty-six-year-old stub was an object of totemic reverence, held onto as, perhaps, the last earthly evidence of a fabulously successful wager. I feel guilty owning this particular piece of personal fortune; if it’s yours and you can prove it, let me know. I’d be delighted to hand it back.

I’m not so sure I’d want to spend time with the busybody who virtually annotated the 1944 hardcover edition of Sally Benson’s Meet Me in St. Louis with a marked-up 1965 Daily News article about Benson’s addiction to codeine and Demerol, thanks to an indicted Beverly Hills physician. But I’ll take the previous owner of my 1958 Meridian paperback of Dwight MacDonald’s essay collection Memoirs of a Revolutionist out for a martini lunch: snuggled at the tail end of a withering incineration of the Truman Doctrine was, first, a three-paragraph tabloid excerpt, snipped and red-lined, detailing a Czech woman’s metaphoric description of life under Communism, as being like a woman forced to marry: “She lives, she has children and she carries on in a kind of muted way, as if it were a normal life, even though in her heart, she knows it isn’t normal….”

Beside this: an unused ticket—No. 798—to a “dinner & entertainment” event, to take place in the ballroom of the Americana on January 29, 1967, given by the Base Ball Writers’ Association of America, New York Chapter. This is probably, I’m told by a current member of the apparently Illuminati-like BBWAA, a pass to that year’s award ceremony (costing the bearer $25). It is, in any case, a witty pasteboard mock-up, meant to suggest a real stadium pass, dressed out with a “Rain Check” stub end, a declaration of “Admit One This Game Only” and an assurance that “This rain check is not good after 4-1/2 courses have been served.”

Another look at the book it came in clears the fog: the title page is inscribed “Stan & Babbie Isaacs, 2-59,” Stan Isaacs being one of the country’s longest-working and beloved sportswriters, still rapping out columns online in a career that began more than half a century ago. Isaacs might not even remember why he couldn’t make the ’67 awards dinner, but a Dwight MacDonald reader? Stan Isaacs the Muhammad Ali–interviewing, Mets-historicizing, Jackie Robinson–glorifying, lefty Cold Warrior? How many sportswriters working today do you think even recognize the name of Dwight MacDonald—or read interrogatory critical-political essays of this caliber, by anyone? Much as he would probably be loathe to hear it, Isaacs belongs to a bygone epoch, when television self-promotion did not rule absolutely, when sports writers knew their games had a real-world context, and when the culture at large required a little give, a little bit of attention and gratitude and engagement, with its take. Be that as it may: I don’t know the answers, but I’ve put in an email to Isaacs, and he may yet answer. I owe him a cocktail, if only for what I think I know about him, and for the American moment with which he has allowed me to be so perversely intimate.

Michael Atkinson is a writer for the Village Voice. His latest book was a debut collection of poetry, One Hundred Children Waiting for a Train (Word Works).

Illustration by Tony Millionaire

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