I’m sure all of us have had the same experience at some point in our lives. We grab a book and sit down to read when, all of a sudden, something interrupts us. What to do? We reach for the closest thing at hand to mark where we left off reading. It might be an actual bookmark. Or, it might be something more prosaic, like a bus ticket, card, letter, envelope, receipt, recipe, photograph, flyer, advertisement… The possibilities are as varied as the people who use bookmarks.
Eventually, the book might find its way into the world at large. It might be donated to a public library. It might end up in a flea market or a garage sale. Or, it might land on other people’s bookshelves or in a used bookstore.
But, I often wonder, what becomes of those so-called forgotten bookmarks? What stories could they tell?
I have a story to tell. Several years ago, I had my own experience with a forgotten bookmark.
I was standing in front of a library shelf. The entire collection of books was being sold. One book in particular caught my eye. I pulled it off the shelf and riffled through it. It was definitely one I wanted for my personal collection. The asking price–a mere 50 cents–was no object. However, on second thought, I changed my mind and returned the volume to the shelf.
The next day, temptation strong assailing me, I went back to the library to see if “my” book was still there.
It was, so this time I forked over the half dollar and took the book out to the car with me.
On my way home, curiosity got the better of me. As I lifted the book and idly flipped the pages, a sealed envelope dropped out. I stopped the car and ever so gently opened it. Imagine my surprise when, from within, there fluttered to my lap a sizeable collection of bills in varying denominations, beginning with the lofty $100 and descending to the lowly $1.
I was faced with a quandary. I knew the book was now mine, as I had bought and paid for it. But were the unexpected contents within mine, as well?
I allowed my mind to do the wondering for me. If a bus ticket, card, letter, receipt, recipe, photograph, flyer or advertisement had emerged from the book, would I have returned it to the seller? No. There was no relative value to such common objects. Well, I rationalized, why should I return the envelope containing the money?
Meanwhile, I wanted to do the honourable thing. After all, there is, in the book I had bought for 50 cents, a section headed “Honesty,” and another on “Conscience.” According to the author, “The conscience in man is his Holy of Holies.”
I began an intense search for identifying marks. There were none on the book showing the original owner. The envelope was pristine both inside and out. And, the bills were in mint condition. So, I convinced myself, there’s no way to track down the owner of the book, a first edition with a copyright date of 1953.
Recently I was reminded of my lucky find when I read Forgotten Bookmarks: A Bookseller’s Collection of Odd Things Lost Between the Pages. The author, Michael Popek, presents a veritable scrapbook of his most interesting finds. There are, for example, ticket stubs, notes, valentines, unsent letters, four-leaf clovers, and various sordid, heartbreaking and bizarre keepsakes. This collection of lost treasures offers a glimpse into other readers’ lives that they never intended for us to see.
Back to my find: in my most reflective moments, I wonder about the owner of the money I found in the book. Why was it placed there in the first place? What was it intended for? What did the owner do when he or she realized the envelope and, especially, the money were misplaced? How did they deal with their loss?
Meanwhile, I have no qualms about admitting what I did with the money: I took it home with me and used it to buy groceries. However, I still wonder if what I did was right. Was there something else I could have done? For example, even if I had returned the book to the library, would the librarian have been able to identify the owner of the book?