In a copy of Czeslaw Milosz’s Legends of Modernity, published last year and borrowed by me last week from the Houston Public Library, I found a bobby pin marking page 75, the start of a chapter titled “The Experience of War.” My first reaction was: Who still uses bobby pins? Did a reader pull the pin from her hair and mark her spot or did she go looking for an appropriate bookmark and settle on the bobby pin? Do such people form the bulk of Milosz’s readership? I pictured an ample-figured Polish baba with hair askew.
For bookmarks, I tend to use business cards. I collect a lot of them (a reporter’s habit), they are small and neat, and I don’t care if I lose them. Presumably, I’ve left business cards from barbers, dentists, pizzerias and bookstores in volumes in three or four states. It wouldn’t occur to me to mark my spot in the Collected Poems of Allen Tate with a cigarette butt the way a reader did at a library in Youngstown, Ohio.
Among the other objects I have found in library books are used tissues, plastic combs, human and other mammal hair, quarters, greeting cards, concert and theater tickets, library cards, credit cards, a money clip, pressed leaves, plastic sandwich bags, several one-dollar bills and even real bookmarks, the kind with tassels. In the spring of 1999, in a history of Argentina I borrowed from the Schenectady County Public Library (as background to an intensive reading of Borges) I found a 20-dollar bill. The most unpleasant object, and I find it quite often, is cigarette ash and its accompanying funk.
Not all forgotten bookmarks are trash. Some I keep because they are old or intrinsically interesting. About 10 years ago I bought an old Everyman edition of Tristram Shandy as backup to the even older two-volume set I already owned. Left at page 126-127 was a five-cent coupon and pamphlet, folded into 12 narrow pages, for a product called DIF, manufactured by the DIF Corp., of. Garwood, N.J. Here’s a testimonial from Mrs. S.R.N. of Elizabeth, N.J.: “We thought of having kitchen repainted. After washing ceiling and walls with DIF we have decided it need not be done. For the bathroom we find DIF invaluable.”
There’s another class of residue often found in books: marginalia and inscriptions, a species of vandalism, unless you happen to be Herman Melville. In my copy of Anthony Hecht’s Collected Earlier Poems, next to “The Dover Bitch,” a helpful reader scrawled “Parody” and “Sexist?” In my first edition of the great J.F. Powers’ final work, Wheat That Springeth Green, a Yuletide gift-giver wrote in large and excruciatingly legible script: “This may bring back some memories of Fr. Leonard, and Fr. Hubert and Fr. Daniel and Fr. Adrian and Fr. Damian and Fr. Hillary and Fr…..and Fr…..etc., etc. Love, Michael, Christmas, 1988.” That amounts to grafting a short and rather repetitious story onto Powers’ novel. Apparently Michael’s recipient wasn’t as touched or amused as I am: I bought it at a used book sale.
In Marginalia (2001), H.J. Jackson, a scholar at the University of Toronto and editor of Coleridge’s marginalia, admits she writes in books. I find that almost painful to accept, though she fashions a convincing argument in favor of serious readers writing in the volumes they own – not those owned by libraries or others. She writes:
“For readers who cherish the intimacy of reading, who hear only one voice at a time and cannot selectively shut out another, annotations in a book are not merely a distraction, they are a disaster. This attitude is understandable but, insofar as it is inflexible, not enviable.”
I prefer no amendations to the books I am reading, unless they carry a portrait of Andrew Jackson.