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On the Complex Magic of Reading, Memorizing, and Note-Taking in the Margins

In 2021, I’ve spent many months reading over 100 historical novels. These were entries for the ARA Historical Novel Prize. As I read the books, I took detailed notes on each: quotes from the text, my comments, judgments and notes on the design of the books, and profiles of the writers and editors. I jotted down anything that seemed to be somehow relevant to the experience I had of reading the books. There was a scoring system that I and my fellow judges – Nicole Alexander and Roanna Gonsalves – went through as we went along, and we shared a lot of information. My copies of the books have been marred by pencil marks. We easily agreed on the winner, Jock Serong’s The Burning Island. And my notes are now kept in my binder.

In June 2022, I was sorting through the filing cabinet and came across a newspaper article from 1987. It was by my friend and colleague Gerald Murnane, and it was titled “The Memories and Imaginations of a Literary Judge “. The play begins: “Recently I started a series of interesting experiments with myself as a subject.” It’s a fairly routine start for Gerald, and he goes on to explain that he re-read some of the books after not reading them for many years. He realizes that he had mostly imagined the content of the books, without really remembering it. Then he goes on to write about the judging process for the 1987 Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction (now Victoria’s Premier’s Prize for Fiction), won that year by Janine Burke for her novel Second sight. When he examines the covers of all the entrances as they are laid out on his floor, he finds that he remembers “barely a word”. All he remembers is “the experience of reading them.” He remembers the images that came to him as he had read them the first time, but, on the second reading, he finds that the images are often not related to the content of the books. According to Gerald, readers who cannot quote certain words from books speak “from the content of their own mind”.

Luckily, right after reading this article, I was at dinner with friends, one of whom told me he had just read Jane Eyre. Several people at the table started quoting from the novel. They weren’t particularly ‘literary’ people, but it occurred to me that perhaps Gerald is unusual in that he doesn’t remember the words of the novels he reads, while insisting that only words matter.

I tend to think that one of the main purposes and functions of reading is to convey various elements of books to the mind of the reader. Gerald concludes that at the final Vance Palmer Prize judging meeting, the judges “were not talking about books, but about their own memories and imaginations.” On the sidelines of Gérald’s article, I wrote in pencil in 1987: “And if they brought their notebooks and quotations etc. to the meeting? And surely they would? When Roanna, Nicole and I spoke, we had these documents handy. We have cited them step by step. It turned out that our thoughts and memories of The Burning Island were often quite similar. We also remembered some words. Of course, there are many ways to judge a competition, but ours seemed to work for us.

In the folder that contained Gerald’s story about judging the Vance Palmer Prize, I found a few more bits of his writing. One was a photocopy he had sent me of a typewritten manuscript, titled “The Curse of Ivan Veliki,” with handwritten notes by Gerald. It was a book review he had published in the now defunct periodical brave new word in December 1988. True to its philosophy outlined in the story of Judgment, this review pays far more attention to the content of Gerald’s mind and imagination than to the book being reviewed. Readers should go to page five of the six-and-a-half-page document before the book in question is mentioned.

“The Cursing of Ivan Veliki” has been reposted in Gerald’s collection of essays Still unseen Sustainable lilacs in 2005. In this version, all mention of the book under consideration has been removed, and the piece stands as a personal essay on the construction of fiction, an account of how Gerald thinks and writes. As such it is of course very interesting. The missing book review had fit into the space between the penultimate and last paragraph of the essay as it was published in 2005. This review was a page and a half of the original essay.

The book under study brave new word was my handbook for writers, Dear writer, first published in 1988. The review of Gerald, almost hidden in “The Curse of Ivan Veliki”, is overwhelmingly positive. It is, in fact, quite beautiful. He comments: “I beg my reader’s pardon, but I can’t help it. Every time I read honest writing about writing fiction, I get the urge to write more fiction myself. And that’s what he does. That seems reasonable enough, but it also seems to me that the “review” is hopelessly lost in the context of the story.

I had, unsurprisingly, forgotten all about Gerald’s brief assessment of Dear writera criticism that now persists in the archives of brave new word, and in my workbook. I’m glad to have discovered it. I believe Gerald keeps a complete archive of everything he wrote. My binders are less orderly than his, but both could hold identical copies of “The Curse of Ivan Veliki,” with the review embedded. With notes.

Caramel Bird

Carmel Bird is an author. His memoirs are Witness.

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