Bookmarking our lives

To augment my collection of vintage cookery books, I am now the contented owner of The Apartment Vegetarian Cookbook (1978) by Lindsay Miller (Peace Press). Taking a coffee break, I sat to glance through it and out fell several fragments of paper. They were recipes, cut from a cardboard food packet and torn from tin cans, for soy loaf, lentil patties, and the like. Several are courtesy of Australian company Sanatarium Health Foods, so probably this book, written and published in the US, at some point made a long journey from America to the southern Pacific Ocean, to here in the UK.

I am mildly addicted to second-hand books. And it’s a small thrill, finding things inside, tiny clues and insights to other peoples’ lives, the letters, notes, recipes, photographs, postcards, receipts, and tickets, often used as improvised bookmarks. In an article on website Atlas Obscura last year, examples of such finds were collected and documented, including less pleasant items of bubblegum, boogers (snot), dead head lice, and, more commonly than one might imagine, desiccated strips of fried bacon. Yuck – the worst thing I have found between the pages has been apple pips, presumably spat out by the book’s previous owner as they blithely leafed through it. The nicest thing was probably some pressed flowers. And more happily, the above-mentioned article does list findings of historical newspaper cuttings, love letters, photos, and even a ineptly hidden sheet of LSD. Take a look here, there are some great examples, from the grisly (a dead pet goldfish) to the sweet (a four-leafed clover).

You wonder about the lives behind these finds, the conscientious health nut, the starry-eyed lover, the proud grandparent, and even the poor infested head scratcher (or, more likely, despairing mum, yet again combing a louse from the head of her school-aged child – been there!). And you are bonded, these people and you, in the same choice you made, of reading matter or of factual book to consult. Not to mention the wonder of the journey the book owner, or at least the book, has been on, to travel from Australia or the US, Patagonia, Japan or Tristan da Cunha to here – wherever you are in the world.

Or these found artefacts may be those of your own family, or even belong to you personally, forgotten or half-remembered until rediscovery, affording you a rear window into your heritage or back onto your own past self. Will it make you sentimental, the photo of your grandparents in their younger day, or cringe in horror, that yellowing photo of you with the ill-advised shaggy perm?

You may find more inside than words…

There’s that momentary curiosity, too, afforded by second-hand books that have inscriptions on the flyleaf, from the simple (Happy Birthday Mum!) to the more intriguing. ‘May this book accompany you on your journey, and may we meet again – if not in this life, then in the next’ is the inscription on a copy of Seamus Heaney’s poetry that I bought second hand (less glamorously, the volume is not very old!) Who wrote that? A lover in final farewell to their departing beloved, or a decidedly pretentious teen-ager? Some tomes feature a bookplate glued in at the front, a school prize, perhaps, or cataloguing a personal library.

I have several books from a largely forgotten —and not particularly nice—former boyfriend that I do not want to give away (the books, not the boyfriend) largely because they contain written dedications, and owning such fragments of even my own history feels a little bit splendid.

Other times a page is stamped, marking the book as ex-library stock or imprinted with the name of a school – there’s one here on the shelf, a history text called The Medieval Scene by R.J. Unstead, 1962, A&C Black Limited, stamped ‘Hartington School’, wherever that is. And you know, then, the book has been through many hands, some fascinated, some bored.

So what’s the best or worst thing you’ve ever found tucked into an old book, or the most intriguing inscription you have read in one?

Sarah Laskow, ‘The Best Things Found Between the Pages of Old Books’ in Atlas Obscura, February 218, retrieved 11 October 2019.

Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash on Stocksnap

23 thoughts on “Bookmarking our lives

  1. One of the books I read recently, a little comic book about identity, had a space in the back for notes. Being that it was a library book, I didn’t want to mark the book itself, but I found myself drawn to leaving a note that might make it to the next reader, so I tucked in an extra paper with a little note. I wonder if it will make it past an astute librarian, or it it will live on for a while, seeing whoever reads it next. I hope it does.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s a pretty cool idea!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. That is a lovely idea, like a sort of message in a bottle. I like to think that if they librarian found it, they’d leave it there. We need small daily mysteries.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I never found anything unusual. Sometimes song lyrics, poems, or recipes.
    Although I prefer proper bookmarks, I have recently started using receipts rather regularly. The library prints out a receipt, which has a due date on it, so I like to keep it handy that way.
    How do people leave such weird “bookmarks”? Whenever I donate books, I turn them upside down and fan the pages to make sure nothing else remains there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Strips of bacon is pretty odd – greasy pages! I have been given lovely bookmarks but then use whatever is to hand. Of course, the main controversy is whether to turn down a corner of the page to ‘dog ear’ a book – some do, some are aghast.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I did that once or twice in my life, but overall I choose not to. It’s too … permanent.


  3. R. J. Unstead! Now there’s a name I felt an instant affinity with, a name I recognised so well? Why?

    (Just this second Googled and yes now I remember, he wrote the books I owned as a child)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh yes! A quick Google this side shows Mr Unstead to have been very prolific. Even though it’s an old kids’ textbook, the Medieval Life is interesting and easy to following, and not having studied History since aged 16, I like it. Now I look, am seriously tempted to get his ‘Living in a Castle’.
      BTW though, have you stopped blogging!!??

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I kinda fell out the habit of writing but I do have 43 posts/ideas in draft! Truth be told I’m finding Brexit and our disgusting politics hard to live with at the moment………. got to keep positive though 🙂 .

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It is a challenge right now, just knowing whatever the outcome, around half the country will be dissatisfied and the tensions have grown exponentially worse . Happy Sunday evening thought .😁

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Dead 💀 lice??? Very Halloween-ish haha

    Me? Only bills 😂😭😭😭


    1. Dollar bills by any chance?!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No I think only in Swedish 😂😂 I’d like to find some dollars – but wasn’t that lucky 🍀 yet ;))


        1. We can dream!

          Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s one thing I like about library books. You’re not supposed to but lots of people add notes to the margins. I like reading what caught their attention.


    1. I rather like that too. And fascinated at people who ink out a curse word – neither is great on public property, but I get more interested in who did this and their motives than upset about the act.


  6. I mostly buy second-hand books at the “bouquinistes” along the Seine. Fill my suitcase(s) with enough stock to last me – at least part of – the year.
    But dead lice? Mon Dieu.


    1. These words make me think of one of your remarkable Parisian images. I assume the head lice were not tiny bookmarks, but who knows.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Haha! I have a clean paintbrush which I exclusively use for dusting old books. Biscuit crumbs and the like. 😉
        Bonne semaine Libre. I see they’re playing “King Lear” live at the House of Commons, treason after treason, after back-stabbing. Gloucester is indeed blind. 😦
        “Then shall the realm of Albion
        come to great confusion”.


        1. I am afraid so. Pivoted on a single decision, in a storm of hubris and playing a game of manipulation, autocratic rulers take us to the very edge whilst all falls apart around us… Though the most extreme scenes of madness in Lear cannot equal this lunacy. The ultimate lack of correlation between wisdom and power. Confusion will be the least of it.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Very well put Libre. Now here’s what “bugs” me. In Shakespeare’s 1600’s my ancestors were peasants, farmers in Flanders. Today, we are not English peasants, farmers or Saxon serfs anymore. Humanity has never been so educated. Illiteracy has practically disappeared in many parts of the world. The incidence of university graduates has never been higher. And yet we seem powerless. Something’s definitely wrong.


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