A few weeks ago, I re-watched the 2002 Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze movie Adaptation, which seemed to be playing at the local cinema as part of a Nicholas Cage retrospective. Cage plays the screenwriter Kaufman as he struggles to adapt Susan Orlean’s mesmerizing book The Orchid Thief into a movie. The structure of the book, described as “that sprawling, New Yorker crap that doesn’t really go anywhere,” does not lend itself easily to a film adaptation. During one of Kaufman’s attempts to start the screenplay, he describes an opening scene that stretches from the beginning of the earth to his birth in mid-twentieth century Los Angeles. Finding a plot (as a verb, to make plans; as a noun, a patch of solid ground) in this sprawling life—that does not really go anywhere—is one of those mammoth mammal tasks that appears so insurmountable that someone invented the snooze button on alarm clocks just so we could ignore this responsibility and return to sleep for a few more precious minutes. I am reminded of the thoughts of Blaise Pascal as he tried to describe this condition:
“We are floating in a medium of vast extent, always drifting uncertainly, blown to and fro; whenever we think we have a fixed point to which we can cling and hold fast, it shifts and leaves us behind; if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips away, and flees eternally before us.”
We are trapped between the infinitely large and infinitesimally small, engulfed by the impenetrable secrecy of life. I suppose it is no wonder that people like bookmarks: to know that you have a place somewhere in the enormity of everything. Considered in this light, dog-earing the top corner of a page is forgivable. You wish to leave a trace of yourself in the copy of a book that left an impression—evanescent or indelible—on your mind and heart.
I promised my mother I would not buy any more books until I returned to England. Back in September 2015, I expected to live in Portland for no more than a year. One of the two suitcases for my first transatlantic flight to Oregon was crammed with books, and I assumed that they would easily satisfy me for a year. I was wrong.
From what I recall, I broke my promise within the first week. The irresistible temptation came from a David Shields’ novel called Dead Languages, which I bought at the famous Powell’s City of Books. When the transaction was complete, the cashier slipped a complementary Powell’s bookmark between the front cover and the title page. The bookmark bears the addresses and contact information of each Powell’s branch on one side, and, on the other, lists their “buying hours” and implores you to “sell us your books.” During my frequent visits, I have spotted several people with cardboard boxes full of books which they hope to exchange for a wallet-wad of dollars.
I am leaving Portland soon. Every so often, I look at the messy piles of books in my apartment then glance at a nearby Powell’s bookmark to check their buying hours. You must book an appointment for an employee to sift through your books and decide whether anything is worth enough money to take off your hands and sell in the store. I think that process discourages me. I could not bear the humiliation of standing in public while someone judges my literary taste before they hand me a few dollars for two boxes of books. Walter Benjamin observed astutely in his breathtaking essay “Unpacking My Library” that “to the book collector . . . the true freedom of all books is somewhere on his shelves,” so I am reluctant to return half of my collection to the coercion of commerce. They will become just another commodity to be repriced, reshelved, and resold.
Luckily, the other half of my collection will endure and travel with me. Unlike Benjamin, I am still in the stage of packing my library—choosing the right volumes and facing the Tetris-esque challenge of fitting them neatly into boxes. Some of them still contain their Powell’s bookmark, ready to help me find and keep my place.
The history of the bookmark takes place inside the history of the book. Before the Big Bang of the Gutenberg Galaxy, books were rare and written by a meticulous scribe. The rarity of these texts, writes A.W. Coysh in his 1974 Collecting Bookmarks, demonstrated the “need for some device to mark the place in a book . . . Without bookmarkers, finely bound volumes were at risk. To lay a book face down with pages open might cause injury to its spine, and the crease on a page that had the corner turned down remained as a lasting reproach.” One could put a bookmark between the pages and remove it without leaving a trace. Bookmarks used to be predominantly made with silk and leather, but, as the mass-publishing industry made books more available and affordable, they were made with cheaper material like thin card. The new availability of paperbacks meant that the bookmark became less of a way to protect the pages and spine of a book, and functioned more as an artificial memory aid. It anchored the reader in the text.
And so, I take another tome from my shelf and decide whether it is headed toward my new home or the Powell’s on Hawthorne. Just as every bookmark belongs in a book, every book belongs on a shelf. When I was younger, I dedicated hours to arranging my bedroom library in alphabetical order. Eventually, I ran out of space to organize them into neat rows. Stacks of randomly ordered books rose to the height of my wardrobe, and, occasionally, tumbled to the floor. Benjamin explains that one’s library maintains “a dialectical tension between the poles of disorder and order.” Regardless of the obsessive order of your books (alphabetical, chronological, thematic), they will fall into a familiar disorder as soon as you take them off the shelf, place them in your lap, and forget to reshelve them according to their original arrangement. An excessively neat library is the mark of the unenthusiastic reader.
Right now, my library is neater than it has ever been. Two different piles for two different fates. Reflecting on his own library, Benjamin opines that the collector desires and respects singular copies of books rather than the book-in-itself. I have not possessed and read Shields’ Dead Languages, but only my own copy of that book. Each copy in these piles is a belonging that I have taken to the various houses and apartment buildings where I have lived over the past two years. Even though I paid the rent to put a roof over their spines, these tales and treatises formed a dwelling—as Benjamin put it, “with books as the building stones”—in which I found peace and purpose. It seemed that I belonged to them more than they belonged to me.
Copies of Dead Languages, Race Matters and Silent Spring that were once mine will soon fall into the hands of someone else. Like Don DeLillo writes in White Noise, “Maybe there is no death as we know it. Just documents changing hands.” Each book bears the bruises of previous owners: creases in the spine, smudges of dirty thumbs in the margins, a scribbled birthday message from a close friend on the title page. The history of the book encompasses the histories of each individual book and each individual reader. Whenever someone turns to a new page and starts to speak with that faint voice inside their head, they are alive. Maybe I will feel less remorse about taking my books to that desk in Powell’s if I understand that I am sharing the opportunity to feel alive with people I will never meet or know.
Once again, I move from one city of strangers to another. I doubt that I will make the same promise to my mother. We have both learnt that books overrule oaths. Speaking of my books, they’re all sorted into their separate boxes and addressed to different destinations. I am going to take them out tomorrow. One trip will take me to the Post Office; the other, Powell’s. I expect one last complementary bookmark. After all, I read a lot of books and I do not want to lose my place as I turn from page to page. I like to follow the plot wherever it goes in this sprawling, New Yorker-style crap of life. I fold over the corners of pages occasionally to remember where I have been and to remind myself to return there in the future. In this way, all the places I’ve been stay with me wherever I go.