Bookmarks as Tombstones

Bookmarks are the tombstones of unfinished books—the grave markers of difficulty, of impatience, of lack of discipline, of inadequate intelligence, of failure.

As an avid reader, I too must face the inevitable issues of the practice. Which book to choose? Catch up on the classics? Or stay relevant with a recent release? Should I push myself to finish the one I’m currently reading or find something more compelling? Am I giving up too soon, though? What will people say if they find out I couldn’t finish it? And how am I supposed to read a hardcover in bed, anyway? And where do I put all these damn things?

But maybe the most pressing predicament of the practical reading life is this: Where the hell are all my bookmarks?

This is how it goes every time: While reading I’ll suddenly need to stop, so I look around for something—anything—to stuff between its pages. At first I’ll grab whatever’s near me—McDonald’s receipts, overdue bills, wedding invitations I have no plan on accepting—and use those, but you’d be surprised how quickly that sort of day-to-day flotsam runs out. Frustrated I enter my library, thinking, I’ve shopped at a million bookstores and have been given a million bookmarks—how can I not find one? When I don’t need one, they of course seem to spill out of the shelves, a library’s version of a leak.

Then it happens. In my irked temper, what I see in this moment—and have seen almost daily for years and years—somehow escaped my memory, but as soon as I do my meaningless annoyance evaporates and makes way for an entirely different sensation. What happens is I finally look to the hundreds and hundreds of books on the shelves to see if I can’t take a bookmark from one of them, and once I go there, I see it. The tops of the stuffed-together volumes of each shelf form a skyline of an impossibly dense city, a right-angle geography unseen anywhere but in human endeavors. Jutting out from the depths are exactly what I was looking for: bookmarks. Rows upon rows of them, in fact. But instead of alleviating my current need, the image fills me with a brief—but very real—dread.

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Books are the great love of my life, and these are the ones even that great love couldn’t reach.

These are the tombstones of unfinished books. These are the grave markers of difficulty, of impatience, of lack of discipline, of inadequate intelligence, of failure. These are the headstones of my over-arching ambition, my foolish completism, my false idea of myself. Books are the great love of my life, and these are the ones even that great love couldn’t reach. These are rich, rewarding texts that only ask a few days from me, and these are the ones I couldn’t even give that to.

If this all sounds dramatic to you, imagine a visual reminder of all your boasts, all your grand intentions, all the things you said to help create an image of you; now imagine this sight recurring, day after day, its impact as strong as ever because you can’t seem to fucking remember its painful significance; and then, finally, imagine that this is both your job and your life, and that this cemetery of my limitations shows that maybe those things—my job and my life—don’t fit as well on me as I once believed, that maybe my identity as a reader, a critic, a human being, was something I made up, something I created, rather than something I’ve earned. How many more deaths will come before I face the truth?

Mercifully—and, to be honest, mysteriously—the dread subsides. I focus my attention not on the prominent bookmarks but on the novels and plays and poetry collections that stand in between. These are the books I have read or that I will read (or attempt to read). Though they’re much less ostentatious, and though they are satisfied to reside—maybe a bit murkily, fuzzily, but quietly, patiently—in the recesses of my mind, only to be brought out when needed, and though it’s impossible now to distinguish between any of them in those recesses, these are my true life companions, the ones that really matter.

And so the tombstones still pop out of the white edges, but, like life, it is the earth between the graves that matter most to living, and somehow, despite all my failures, I go on and do just that.


Image credits: Africa Studio/, Marc Osborne/

About Jonathan Russell Clark

JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK is a literary critic and the author of An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, Tin House, The Georgia Review, and numerous others.

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