The Treasures We Leave (And Find) In Books


When I first opened my copy of Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, I found a letter from a woman named Janet to a woman named Evelyn about how this pamphlet would have information about what it was like when Evelyn’s aunt went to medical school. When I opened up a big, old book of British poetry, I found an invitation to and a corsage from my uncle’s wedding, marking the page where the section on my grandmother’s favorite poet, Robert Browning, starts. These items represent important moments in the lives of the people who placed them.

My go-to bookmark is a small bit of needlepoint, featuring an owl and a rabbit, that my mom made for me. I do not leave it in any book once I have finished it; I bring it along with me on my next journey. Occasionally, I use something else as a bookmark, and that usually stays in the book. In Michael Crawford’s memoir, Parcel Arrived Safely: Tied With String, lives my ticket from the first time I saw The Phantom of the Opera on stage. Crawford wasn’t playing the Phantom, but he was the reason I was there.

As I think about all of the books I own, I know very few of them have permanent residents. My copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which I bought shortly after midnight the day it came out, still has the yellow wristband I wore for access to the midnight party. My copy of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White has a 3 by 5 card with an illustration of a woman in white hiding from a shadowy figure who is peaking around the corner. It was drawn by a friend for the program cover when I was directing Collins’s own play adaptation of that book. My friend also played the title character. This was obviously something I wanted to preserve and remember. 

I still have many secondhand books that I have not opened. I wonder what I will find in them. I know there has long been a tradition of pressing flowers and leaves in the leaves of books. When I first heard of this tradition, it was around the time I started Jurassic Park. My tattered, old copy of that book still has the leaf in it that I placed there twenty years ago, preserved like a mosquito in amber. One of my diaries, contains souvenirs from my very first date: one of my date’s school pictures, my ticket to Monsters Inc., and my fortune cookie fortune, “Your lover will never wish to leave.” My fortune did not come true, but it was a good date.

You cannot stick things into an e-book. You can stick things into an e-reader, but unless that thing has a specific input, you had better not. Books are history, whether directly recounting it, or representing a particular zeitgeist, but they can also be a personal history. Not every book that is important to me will get a souvenir, but chances are I will, over the course of my life, leave many small things in many books. Then one day, descendents or second owners will find these things, and wonder what they meant.