Wednesday, April 22, 2009


One of the most unsettling experiences of my life happened when I was 18, browsing through the shelves of my college library. A book caught my eye and I started to flick through it. Suddenly, halfway through the book, a photograph fell out and floated down to the floor. I picked it up and to my horror, it was of me.

My heart started pounding and I quickly put the book back, making sure that I kept the photo. I went outside and took deep breaths. Only later did I realise that I had borrowed the book a year earlier and used a photo as a bookmark.

I mention this because I have spent today flicking through dozens of secondhand books and found several photos that were used as bookmarks. This one is my favourite:

We're used to seeing individual passport photos of people, but there is something terribly private about a sequence, where we can see the subject trying to strike the right pose, experimenting with different moods. The man above appears both ridiculous and touchingly vulnerable.

This young woman clearly isn't comfortable having her picture taken and is nervously biting her lower lip. Is she still alive today, I wonder?

This bookmark is dated 1959 on the other side. It is only a fragment, but there is enough to see that it is an advert for the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha's favourite film star, Norman Wisdom.

On this scrap of paper, someone has gone to the effort of copying out the last paragraph of a novel just below the actual text.

Here is the only real bookmark I found all day, imploring the British to use their new National Health Service - TOWARDS A FITTER BRITAIN. I wonder what the founders of the NHS would make of today's obesity epidemic?

"Charlie" she exclaimed impulsively. "I do not mean to vex you."

I love these tantalising glimpses into lost lives, but in future I'll take great to make sure that I don't unwittingly contribute to the archive. My photos will remain in the drawer.


Art said...

You're finding such interesting stuff. It tempts me to do the opposite: leave the bookmarks in all my library books.

JRSM said...

There's a site online somewhere (helpfully I now can't find it) where someone catalogues the things they put INTO books which they then sell to used-book places. Things like polaroid photos of a happily smiling young couple with 'I KILLED THEM HID THE BODIES IN THE LAKE' scrawled on the back.

tattyhousehastings said...

Great post, have been ashamed of my ripped up bits of paper for bookmarks for years. I do find proper bookmarks annoyingly long though. Sometimes they poke you while you are reading.

Nadia said...

I loved your post about bookmarks. You have found such interesting things in your books. I don't think I have ever used a photo as a bookmark. I tend to use whatever is handy at the moment, like receipts, postcards, post-its, a candy wrapper, etc. In books that I have bought used, the only interesting thing I have ever found was an old postcard. In books that I have sent out to moochers I have placed postcards in them and I'd like to think that those postcards have been used as bookmarks.

The Archduchess said...

Those bits of history are wonderful and beautiful. I agree with Art, it makes me want to take pictures and bits of paper memorabilia and leave them in little-used library books to be found many years later.

You do lead a fascinating life, with so many books all around.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Right that's it - you must definitely apply for your own show on the new digital TV Book Channel - Steerforth!

Have just posted about it at mine.

Brett said...

I have a whole collection of bookmarks I've found in library books over the years that I've been meaning to scan and post, though I didn't save the sanitary napkin.