Telltale, Carmel Bird and me

In my recent post on Carmel Bird’s bibliomemoir, Telltale, I hinted that there could be another post in this book. There could, indeed, be many, but I must move on, and I must not spoil the book for others. However, given many blog-readers enjoy personal posts, I’ve decided to share a few of my particular delights in the book. I found myself frequently writing “Yes” in the margins …

“I’m glad, now, that I have always defaced books”

… because, like Carmel Bird, I have, since I was a student, “defaced” my books. Not only that, but my defacements seem to be of a similar ilk to hers. For example, I sometimes add an old envelope, or post-it notes, inside back covers to carry more notes. Like her, I love books with several empty pages at the back to accommodate note-taking.

Not enough blank pages at the end of Telltale!

Carmel Bird also loves indexes – and I love the fact that Telltale has a beautiful index, because such a book should, but often doesn’t. But, what really tickled me was her comment early in the book that “I also make a rough index on the empty pages at the ends of books I read” (or, as she also writes, “pencilled lists of key elements”). Yes! Sometimes, my indexes are more like notes, but other times my notes are more like indexes. Mostly, though, I do a bit of both, with exactly what depending on the book and on my response to it. This latter point is implied in Bird’s statement that:

In 2020, paying so much attention to books, I took particular notice of the differences in the ‘indexes’I had made at different times, how on each re-reading I had noticed different details.

Here, she not only shares her reading practice but also comments on reader behaviour, on the fact that each time we read a book we find something new. That can be for various reasons. On subsequent readings we already know the book at some level and so are ready to see more in it; on subsequent readings the world will have changed so the things we notice can also change according to the zeitgeist; and then, of course, the biggie, on subsequent readings, we ourselves have changed so we see the world differently. I love that Bird’s indexes reflect this – and that she saw it.

But, there’s a downside to all this “defacement”, which Bird also discusses. Writing about discarding books – the how and why – she says, “when I have annotated a book, it is not much use to anybody but myself, so selling it or giving it away are not possible solutions”. I know what she means, though I contest that hers would not be of use to anyone else. Who wouldn’t enjoy owning a book so defaced by her?

There is, however, a point at which she and I depart. When reading an outsize paperback becomes “too difficult … to manage comfortably” she will attack it “vertically down the spine with an electric carving knife” to divide it into manageable portions. I know some travellers tear out sections of travel guides they no longer need, but librarian-me finds destruction a step too far. Sorry Carmel, I understand, but …

“oh what a lovely word”

Like many authors, Carmel Bird loves words. It’s on show in all her work, but in Telltale, it’s front and centre. In her opening chapter, she writes that

Uncle Remus uses terms such as ‘lippity-clippity’. This is the kind of singing, onomatopoeic language I sometimes invent when writing.

And, so she does, even in this nonfiction bibliomemoir. Did it come from reading Uncle Remus “all that time ago”, she ponders. Was it “embedded” in her brain, back then, without her “even realising”? Probably.

Throughout Telltale, Bird discusses words – how they have changed over time (in meaning, for example, or in acceptability), how they look, where they come from, how they sound. As the daughter of a lexicographer, I would be interested in this. As a lover of Jane Austen whose wit and irony I adore, I would be interested in this. And, as one who loves writing that plays well in the mouth and sounds great to the ear, I would be interested in this. If you love words too, this book will be an absolute delight for you.

Other delights

As I said when opening this post, I really mustn’t spoil this book for others, so I’ll just add a few other delights:

  • her discussions of the many books and stories she chooses to share – those she found on her shelves that she felt illuminated her life and writing. I’ve mentioned very few of these because, really, this is the thing that most readers will want to discover and enjoy. Get to it … Meanwhile, I will name just two here. One is Dickens’ Bleak House which she writes “might” be her favourite Dickens. It might be mine too. The other is Marjorie Barnard’s “The persimmon tree” which she describes as “extraordinarily powerful”. Barnard’s “The persimmon tree and other stories” is one of the only short story collections I’ve read more than once. I concur!
  • silly little things like the fact that she loves green (as do I) and that she learnt that “lovely” word “tessellated” at the tessellated pavement at Tasmania’s Eaglehawk Neck (as did I).
  • she loves the internet and allowed herself to use it for this book. She was the first fiction writer in Australia to have a website. Like most of us, she prefers printed books, but she also sees the advantage of electronic books (including the ease of searching them – as an index-lover would!)

Finally, early in the book, Bird discusses memory:

As is often the case with memory, while some of physical details are clear, the principal element that has been retained is the feeling. Perhaps the feeling is the meaning.

Yes! This makes sense to me. I can rarely remember plots or denouements, but for the books that are special to me, I can remember how they made me feel – uplifted, melancholic, inspired, distressed, excited, angry, and so on. These feelings are surely associated with what the author intended us to take away, and therefore they must reflect the meaning?

Here, I will, reluctantly, leave Telltale, but I’ll do so on one of its three epigraphs, the one from her own character:

is the carpet-bag
mire of quag
filled with light-dark truth-lies
image innation
and butterflies’

Remembrance of Wings Past

How can you not love this?

33 thoughts on “Telltale, Carmel Bird and me

  1. Thank you, Whisperer. Your murmurings in response to Telltale have touched my heart, winding their way through the blue eucalypts, across the lacework of the wonder-web. Such intimate and precise analysis is unusual and very welcome. (I am sorry about the carving knife, O Librarian. )

  2. To deface or not to deface? I’m certainly not uniform with this. However, I do a lot of underlining, possibly more to imprint – oops, embed – passages in my brain than to refer to them later, which I hardly ever do. And as for over-large paperbacks I’m finding that I choose books now largely for their small size. The format (A4, A5, A6? Help me here, WG) was a marketing ploy, as are illustrated covers (which I love), to capture the attention of potential buyers when they walk into a bookstore (which is why all authors immediately and surreptitiously move the books around upon entering). But how I do miss the days when a paperback was a pocketbook – easy to carry and hold. As for irony … sadly I’ve found it’s not always recognised, even by the best of readers.

    • I went through a not deface stage Sara but I just had to return to it even though as you say there are many I never return to. I think though that doing it might help imprint the book on me!

      That’s interesting re book sizes. I think you are talking about what is now called B-format paperbacks (ie the traditional Penguin size). The larger format, which I think is often called Trade Paperback is also C-format. Old size names used to be things like Octavo, Quarto, Folio. Your A4, A5 etc, refers to paper sizes which don’t these days anyhow equate to paper sizes I think.

      The thing is, I’m torn. I like the portability of the traditional paperback (or even those smaller ones, in which my Mum had most of her classics) but I like the readability (plus often extra white space for notes) of the trade paperback. My compromise these days is to read e-Books when I’m out and about (as they are very portable, particularly if I have them on my phone (albeit I don’t love reading on my phone), and print books when I’d home.

      Re irony. Yes, I know what you mean … both irony and satire are often missed. And, to be honest, I am sometimes nervous when I write a post. Have I missed some irony or satire or – is this worse? – have I seen some that wasn’t intended!

  3. Within the last year or so, I read that Norman Mailer was given to tearing books apart for more convenient reading. Perhaps the fault is in the publishers rather than the readers, for Trollope’s memoirs mention three-volume novels that surely would be published in one volume today. A third of most novels, in paperback format, would fit nicely into a jacket pocket.

    There is the conflict between the book as artifact, and not to be defaced, and the book as tool, to be adapted to one’s use. I don’t deliberately take books apart–a few have fallen apart on their own and gone to recycling–but I have no compunction about marking them up. Yet I tend to mark up works of philosophy rather than fiction or even history. Someone else’s markings can be annoying, amusing, or just interesting.

    • Ah, interesting George, thanks for sharing. And yes, the three volume novel was common. Most of Austen’s novels (shorter than most of Trollope’s!) were published in three volumes. As you say, they are always published as one volume today, and sometimes even combined into one big omnibus.

      You put that well – conflict between book as artefact and as tool. That’s exactly it. Some really beautiful books physically, like indeed Telltale which is a lovely hardback, I think twice about defacing – but I do my notes in pencil so that’s my compromise – and in margins and the back of the book. I don’t circle, underline or cross through etc, the actual text. Books falling apart is one pf the reasons Carmel Bird discards books!

      You are right about other people’s marginalia – all of that. The most frustrating ones are the unreadable ones which, fortunately (haha), my Mum often found mine – mainly because the pencil tends to be very pale (particularly for older eyes.)

  4. I must read Telltale! As for writing notes in pencil, I took my copy of The Wasteland off the shelf and found that all my notes in the margins have faded and are unreadable – and so small. How I wish I had been bolder in my younger days and hadn’t been brought up to believe it was wrong to write in books.

    • Haha Margaret … in my student days I did use pen so those notes are front and centre still! I was brought up that way too but somehow school and uni texts were different – and then the rot set in.

      But yes, do read this.

  5. Just to start with three volume novels. When I started buying second hand books in the 1960s, the paper was so thick, like blotting paper. Though mum had Pickwick Papers in a tiny volume with prayer book paper.

    I do not deface books. I very rarely even bookmark them with post it notes. The thing I disliked most about studying was having to stop reading to write notes. It breaks the flow.

    I agree with you about books leaving only impressions. If I don’t write a review within a couple of days, and especially if I have started another book since, then it’s all gone, names and plot (I quite often don’t remember the names even while I am reading).

    • I agree, Bill. I struggle with names. Maybe it’s time I started defacing my books by drawing a diagram showing how the main characters relate. Bit tricky on an ebook. And have you noticed that in newspapers people are referred to by their family name (except for Megan and Harry), but in novels they are referred to by their given name? Hm.

      • Haha, Neil, this is partly, I’m sure, why I don’t much like fantasy or sci-fi with their often weird made-up names. A familiar name is much easier to remember (not only the name but who that name is). When I’m confronted with completely unfamiliar names I struggle to remember their gender (which can be important in a novel), let alone whether they are the protagonist or the person down the road. I realise I am treading on difficult ground here and could be sounding ethnocentric too, but it’s simply the truth that unfamiliar names do challenge me. But, if I’m committed – say in a First Nations novel or a Japanese or Nigerian one – I am usually fine because the world is, at least, somewhat familiar.

        I guess it’s not just newspapers, but it’s academic tradition also to refer to people by their last names. Royalty doesn’t really have a last name – yes, I know they do – but not to most people!

        • LOL. I’m glad I’m not the only one to struggle with names. And they need not be exotic to cause confusion. Quite recently I read a story with an “Alex” in it, and wondered “he or she”?

        • Haha Neil … I’m reading a sort of memoir and she mentions meeting Alex. I assumed female but a couple of pages on she says “he” so that clarified that. I suppose it shouldn’t matter but somehow it does, doesn’t it?

    • Yes, Bill, I remeber books like that, alongside, as you say the fine little Collins classics (though I never thought of them as having prayer-book paper. You must be more familiar with them than I!!)

      It does break the flow I agree … but it also enables you to think, particularly if you are reading for more than just plot?

      And, I’m with you. I usually write my reviews pretty much straightaway, and if I don’t, I panic a little – but, I do always have my defacements to help me!

  6. I also love e-books so I can highlight, search for names, and I can click a word I don’t know and see the definition. I feel like that’s one aspect most people don’t talk about with e-books. I can also highlight a non-English word and get a translation, which makes me feel more encouraged about reading books written by authors in other countries that regularly use more than one language.

    • I love e-Books for this reason too Melanie. My frustration is, though, that because I can’t make notes or indexes at the back of an e-book I end up highlighting too much, but, at least we can highlight and add notes to text, can’t we? And the word lookup can be very useful.

      • I’ve just had a play with my ebook software, “pocketbook”, and I can put a note anywhere I want. Highlight a word or two, then add a note to it. You can keep adding to a note. I don’t know if there is a limit. The help says you can export notes, though I haven’t been able to make this work. But if I could, it would be very useful.

        The process would be bookmark current page, list note tags, display index tag, update index tag and OK changes, list bookmarks, select current position bookmark, delete it from current page.

        Actually, if I can export, I could just highlight relevant word, then create an entry “Index: Blah, blah, blah, page XX”. When I want, export, sort so that index items are together. So I have an internal and external index. I am sure Mr Gums could help you with the fine details.

        • Thanks Neil, I can add a note to kindle and I think Apple books too, and I can access all my Kindle highlights and notes on my laptop. I usually copy all that and paste into a word document, and play with it … but this is not very efficient and not exactly how I work in print books where I have “index” headings. I’m not sure what you mean by “index tag” or where you would create ‘an entry “Index: Blah, blah, blah, page XX”.’ I think I’m missing something here? I’ll research pocketbook, but how do you get a book that you buy “into” pocket book, and will it sync across my iPad and iPhone?

        • There’s two ways you could develop the index. You could create a note somewhere in the ebook, probably last page, where you flesh out the index as you go:

          “poison, heroine 135”


          “poison, heroine 135
          villain 146”

          The advantage of creating this way is that you stay fairly consistent, because you see all your other entries.

          The other way is to embed the tags ad you go. So on page 135, insert a note somewhere in the page

          “INDEX: poison, heroine 135”

          and in page 146

          “INDEX: poison, villain 146”

          When you do it this way you don’t lose your page.

          To turn it into a proper index, extract (export) all the notes. Then get Mr Gums to write a small program to extract all the INDEX: notes, and massage them to turn them onto a proper index.

          Pocketbook is available for iPads, though I use it on Android. If you create a login you can synch across devices. I decided to not do this, I rarely read on my phone; if I know I’ll only have my phone I download the book to the phone and synch manually.

          I read EPUB files, mainly free. Not sure how it goes with paid files – when I get a file from Amazon I use my Kindle reader.

        • We’ll said Neil … I could do something like that but it needs to be something that isn’t too time consuming at the end. I’ll have a think about how to make it work on kindle and apple book notes.

        • Ah yes, fair point Melanie that lid let slip my mind! A problem I have with my (licensed) eBooks (as against borrowed ones) is organising them. Some are in my Kindle app (and on my Kindle), some in Apple Books, and others elsewhere. With physical books I can, for example, put all my Jane Austen together, but not my e-Books. Also, in my Kindle, there’s a good system available for organising my books into collections but that doesn’t sync to the app where I struggle to get a good system going. I really dislike it. I’m a librarian and I like to classify and/or organise my books to some system.

        • Understandable. I use Google Books, and those get lumped together if they’re part of a series, and I can also search my library by author, but I’m not as familiar with the other platforms you mention.

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