Yesterday, under the #bookadayuk hashtag, Twitterers were invited to name a book they’d started but never finished. For me, I barely know where to begin with this question. Many, many books I read for pleasure get interrupted by books I read for work, and so on. But it did make me think about books which other people started but didn’t finish, and more specifically about the bookmarks we often find in secondhand books, which tell us how far the previous owner got before they gave up, or before something interrupted their reading and they never came back.
Last summer I was browsing in the boxes outside Collinge & Clark (the secondhand bookshop that was the model for Black Books) when I came across Marcel Aymé’s Les Contes du chat perché. Aymé is someone I’d been meaning to try for a while – he’s probably best known in this country as the writer whose Man who Walked through Walls is commemorated by a statue in Montmarte – and this book looked pleasingly duffed-up in its yellowing Gallimard covers. Picking it up and leafing through, the pages fell open at a particular place, and there inside was a postcard addressed to Mrs Barbara Wright of Frognal, London.
This was quite a surprise: Wright’s was a name I knew very well. One of the great translators of the French avant-garde, she was someone I admired immensely. She had also been the best friend of Stanley Chapman, for a long time the only English member of the Oulipo, whom I had known towards the end of his life. To make things even stranger, I had just that week written a review of her reissued masterpiece – the English translation of Raymond Queneau’s Exercices de style.
All in all then quite a coincidence. But other things struck me too. Firstly, the postcard-as-placeholder, jammed in at page 56: it was heartening to think that even such an estimable reader as Wright sometimes didn’t get any further.
Then there’s the things we use as bookmarks. From a quick straw poll among my colleagues, only one of them ever uses an actual bookmark, something purchased for the express purpose of keeping their page. Most of us, I think, use whatever we have to hand, or in our pockets: bus tickets, leaflets, postcards. We keep books for life, but they act then as time machines for the everyday materials we use to hold our place. Most of the time we only want a bookmark to keep our page till the next read – the tube ride home; bedtime tomorrow – but when we abandon a book, these ephemera get caught up in a different order of time, like mayflies frozen in amber.
I love the naffness of my Barbara Wright postcard with its skier and its “expressively” idiosyncratic typography. It’s so identifiably 1980s, smuggled into the twenty-first century between Gallimard’s resolutely anti-periodic covers. And yet the message on the card, written in a variety of codes, aping the methods of Exercices de style, bemoans the latest strike on the métro: even on bookmarks, some things are timeless.