Elizabeth Willow, UK

Elizabeth Willow, UK

I knew a woman, once, who collected bookmarks. I remember sitting next to her on a flowered sofa while she showed me her albums, full of them, full of them, years and years of gifts and gathering; leather and gilt ones, beribboned and tasselled, ones with pressed flowers, plain and printed ones. Bookmarks from all over, all around the world. And yet I don't remember her reading, for all the bookmarks.

If I use a bookmark, it is usually a feather or a torn scrap of paper, but I often just close the book, assuming I will find my place (and only occasionally, shamefully, leaving the book face down). But one of my favourite things is to have a library book or a second-hand book, and to come all unsuspecting across other people's bookmarks, the traces they leave of themselves. As though in marking their place in the book, they make their own mark upon the page, upon the story and upon the next reader. Did they buy the items on that shopping list, the bread and the light-bulbs and the birthday card? And the bus ticket, where did they go and did they come back again? Who tenderly pressed these flowers or unwittingly trapped a spider? What remains in a book becomes another layer of meaning, a story within the story. What marks the book and what marks the book: the sweet wrappers and seaside postcards and folded till receipts and fringed slips of leather, the scribblings and spilt drinks and smears of old blood and tears and tears and foxing of paper and folding of corners.

I like the physical presence of bookmarks, their smallness and modesty, and the way they quietly yet definitely make a pause, their gentle insistence. I like the way that they can be both a particular thing, a proper thing to be bought as such, and used, and collected, and at the same time just any old thing that happens to fit the purpose.

And bookmarks also are of that class of things that dwindles now, becoming less than their pleasing slightness as to be no longer so useful, so necessary. Though virtually the concept remains, bookmarks are, as real objects, utterly useless and irrelevant to those who favour kindles or other such reading devices. (So, then, these bookmarks were not made for you. So, then, you can go away, and click a button or whatever other dull method by which you mark your place.)

Bookmarks are real, physical, tangible things made for real, physical, tangible and lovely books. They are things to be held, laid down and taken up, used and made worn, lost and found. Small things, slight and slender things, general and particular; what is carefully chosen, what comes to hand. They drift out from an opened book and flutter to the floor, they stay caught in the gutters, they stain the pages with sap and secrets; they can be kept in albums and looked at together in quiet moments and on grey days, when the wind whispers and whispers.