My Word's

a weekly column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 5, #5,
August 9, 1999


You know how we'll be sitting there, wrapped up in a book, and then the phone rings, or someone comes to the door, or the flight attendant tells us the plane is about to touch down. What do we do? We grab the nearest thing at hand to mark our place, and stash the book someplace.

It's not like there's deep meaning in our choice -- handiness is what matters. And yet the things we leave behind in books show us something about the intimate ways our books and lives blend together, shed light on each other. I know, because for years, I've leafed through books people have donated to our library, or checked out and returned, and I've picked up hundreds of books in second-hand stores and garage sales. The things that have fallen out of them are curiously revealing.

Some of them seem like signs of life interrupted. When a hundred dollar bill falls out of a book, I'm inclined to think the person who put it there, perhaps for safekeeping, died without ever having told anyone about it. And surely some accident kept a woman from reclaiming the note her husband sent her from the front in World War II, telling her how much he longed for her (and her pot roast).

Perhaps the books ended up in scattered piles, unfinished and forgotten, because otherwise, important little pieces of our lives wouldn't have been just abandoned there -- an unmailed rent check, a blue satin hair ribbon, a photograph of a grinning little boy with a crooked necktie and no front teeth, a program for an elementary school Christmas concert, cartoons somebody must have giggled over and meant to share with somebody.

There are books that have seen the world, marked with a baggage claim check from Tokyo to San Francisco, a 1920's Greyhound schedule, a paper bag from the gift shop of the Museum of Modern Art, a playbill for the Broadway revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, a post card from Yellowstone (the note on the back tells about the grizzly that had visited the writer's tent and stolen his Twinkies).

You can tell some books have been to school or college. They are marked by class notes and doodles ("I HATE history!"), a hall pass, a form to be presented to the Dean of Men explaining why you were tardy, a commencement program (the speaker was Kurt Vonnegut), a campus parking ticket, an exam schedule (one hopes the student who forgot where he left it at least remembered when his exams were).

Many of the books have been to church. Over the years we have gotten an awful lot of books marked with little cards, some commemorating baptisms, some ordinations of priests. The saddest was the card for the funeral of six year old Rosemary June, now "walking in God's light."

You look at the bookmarks, and you tell yourself stories about them. What were the sprigs of marijuana doing in that book? Was the catalog of Austrian folk costumes being used to plan a costume party, or maybe an opera? Was the 1937 newspaper clipping treasured for its description of a society ball, or for the sleek, slinky wedding gown in the ad on the other side? Were the few staves of music on the torn piece of paper jotted down to capture a quirky little theme for a song, and did the composer lose the idea along with this bookmark? Did those who lost these little pieces of their lives spend hours searching for them? Were some of these mementos lost forever when women held garage sales, cleaning out their attics and basements, and disposing of piles of their families' cobwebbed books?

If you have piles of books scattered around your house, take a look at what you've left inside them to mark your place. Recapture the treasures you'd thought were gone forever -- and then leave the rest where they are. Let them be your message in a bottle for some future generation, your own personal time capsule to give them a glimpse of how we lived our lives.

My Word's
Current column
home to all my
other writing

NOTE: My thinking is always a work in progress. You could mentally insert all my columns in between these two sentences: "This is something I've been thinking about," and "Does this make any sense to you?" I welcome your thoughts. Please send your comments about these columns to: marylaine at Since I've written a lot of these, some of them many years ago, help me out by telling me which column you're referring to.

I'll write columns here whenever I really want to share an idea with you and can find time to write them . If you want to be notified when a new one is up, send me an e-mail and include "My Word's Worth" in the subject line.