What is the right moment to read a book? Is it when the book reflects the story of our own lives, so that we recognise the characters and what happens to them? Or is it before our own story takes the path of characters? Do we read to show us how to avoid the events within? Has a book read at the right time saved any of us from certain doom?
I think this quote sums up the way Ramona Koval reads & why she reads. I think it’s probably true of everyone who can’t imagine a life without books.
Ramona Koval is a well-respected & much-loved broadcaster & journalist. For many years she hosted Books & Writing, a weekly radio show about all aspects of literature. She has also interviewed hundreds of authors at writer’s festivals from Melbourne to Edinburgh & Toronto. Unfortunately her radio career came to an abrupt end last year after some changes at the ABC but she has now written a book about her love of reading & the kinds of books she reads.
Koval grew up in Melbourne in the 50s & 60s, the daughter of Polish Holocaust survivors who had lived in Paris after the war before emigrating to Australia. Both her parents were the only survivors of their families & their marriage wasn’t always a happy one. They didn’t talk about their experiences & had very little in common. Ramona’s mother was a voracious reader who already knew several languages & taught herself English through her reading. Ramona was encouraged to read but she never discussed her reading with her mother & now sees that as a lost opportunity to know her mother better.
Ramona was a good student & had her sights set on a scientific career until, as she puts it, she married her own Charles Bovary & found herself married & pregnant at the age of 20. All her reading of Flaubert, Mary McCarthy’s The Group & Betty Friedan hadn’t made her any wiser. Eventually she began a career in radio, first science journalism with the Marie Curiosity Show & eventually Books & Writing on Radio National.
This book is structured around Koval’s life & the books she was reading at each stage. So she moves from Enid Blyton to Colette & Simone de Beauvoir. She reads Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kafka & George Orwell. A fascination with anthropology leads to Margaret Mead & then the books debunking Mead’s theories. There are the books she reads about Poland to try to understand more about her parents’ early lives. Sometimes the memory of a book or a story leads to the recollection of an interview with the writer as when she meets Grace Paley & Oliver Sacks. I would have liked more about the writers Koval has interviewed although I realise this isn’t that kind of book. There are already a couple of collections of interviews, Speaking Volumes & Tasting Life Twice, that were published some time ago. What I enjoyed here was the more informal recollections & Koval’s own recollections of reading the work & then meeting the author. As an interviewer she is always intent on keeping the spotlight on her subject.
My favourite chapter, probably because I share the obsession, was about the memoirs of polar explorers. She reads Scott, Shackleton, Cherry Apsley-Garrard. She shares my fascination with the efforts of these men, venturing into the unknown in inadequate clothing & risking their lives for a handful of penguin eggs. She wants to know what they read during the long polar nights & discovers their love of poetry, reference books to settle arguments & cookbooks to feed their fantasies when all they had to eat was seal meat & blubber.
By the Book is a walk through the life & library of an intelligent, inquiring woman. I know Ramona Koval’s voice so well that I could hear her voice as I read & I enjoyed learning about her life as well as about the books she’s read. I could only agree when she wrote, “A library is a kind of autobiography of interests, fads and life stages.”