Snapshots of readers in Forgotten Bookmarks

Shawn Alff: You started posting pictures of forgotten bookmarks on a blog in 2007 after finding a large marijuana leaf pressed in the pages of a microwave cookbook. In a world where the written word is increasingly appearing online exclusively, will there be such a thing as a digital bookmark that a bibliophile fifty years from now will compile to provide some insight into digital readers?

Michael Popek: I'm not sure if there will be a proper digital equivalent. If you think about it, you can buy an old computer off Craigslist today - who knows what kind of files you'll find on there. Perhaps in 50 years, the highlighting and note-taking capabilites of e-readers will have advanced so that you can find a marked-up digitial Ulysses.

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SA: What is the most common type of odd bookmark: a photo, grocery list, a concert ticket?

MP: Dried and pressed flowers and leaves, by far. After that, I find a lot of photos.

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SA: Have you noticed a trend in the type of bookmarks used over the decades?

MP: Older books seem to have a lot more newspaper clippings inside. I will occasionally find a volume with text replaced by pasted-in clippings. I'm not sure if that should be some sort of sign of the state of journalism, or just that people don't clip articles out of the newspaper any more.

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SA: What are the best books for interesting bookmarks: religious books, textbooks, cookbooks?

MP: Big leather Bibles from the turn of the last century will almost always have something inside. I think families used these as portable filing cabinet. Anything big and beefy - dictionaries, encyclopedias, art books - are good bets, but the best bookmarks are in well-worn novels.

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SA: Have you ever tracked down anyone whose bookmark you found, or has anyone recognized their bookmark from your blog?

MP: It doesn't happen as often as I'd like. I would really enjoy returning some of this stuff to its proper owners. The first time it happened, it was a handmade cloth bookmark. The person who had made the bookmark more than 30 years ago had found the post. (You can read the comments on this found bookmark here).

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SA: What would you like to find one day in a used copy of Forgotten Bookmarks?

MP: Hopefully a little note with a gift inscription, something along the lines of "To Mary on her 25th birthday, I loved this book, thought of you as I read it."

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SA: Have you ever thought about starting a blog on the odd things you find written or drawn in used books, or would these doodles be more difficult to discover?

MP: I have thought about it, but between Forgotten Bookmarks, Handwritten Recipes (like F.B., but just found recipes) and Book Per Diem (I sell one book a day), I have my internet hands full, not to mention the day-to-day bookshop stuff. I have a bunch of book-related blog ideas I'd like to get off the ground.

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SA: Reconstructing the lives of readers through the bookmarks they leave behind seems like the premise of a Jorge Luis Borges short story. What lessons or impressions do you think an alien race would learn about humanity based solely on the bookmarks we leave behind?

MP: I find a lot of these bookmarks in the middle of the text, so they might think we never finish reading a book.

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Many people collect used books, but only a used book connoisseur could possibly collect used bookmarks. In the same way it can be interesting to read a biography of an author, to glimpse the life behind the pages, it can be equally as insightful to look at a snapshot, or note, left behind by the reader. Michael Popek started a blog featuring the unique bookmarks he found in the pages that pass through his family's used bookstore in Oneonta, New York. Some of his finds include a letter from Albert Camus written 17 days before his death, found in a copy of Camus' The Stranger. A note that begins, "Dear—, I cannot believe what a slime you are," found in an obstetrics care guide. A printed copy of William Butler Yeat's poem, "A Prayer for My Daughter," found in Cutting: Understanding and Overcoming Self-Mutilation.

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