Non-fiction – hardcover; Text Publishing; 256 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
It might seem strange for a book lover to admit, but I tend to stay away from books about books. That’s because I’d rather read the books that are mentioned in the books about books.
But I made an exception for Ramona Koval’s By The Book: A Reader’s Guide to Life because I have such respect for Ramona as a journalist and broadcaster, and I was intrigued to see which books had meant a lot to her during her lifetime — a bit like an extended Triple Choice Tuesday, if you will.
And I wasn’t disappointed: this is a lovely book that entwines Ramona’s memories of growing up in Australia, heading to university, getting married, becoming a mother and pursuing a scientific, then literary career, with the books that have had an influence on her life.
It’s not strictly chronological, because many of the chapters are arranged thematically — for instance, books about travel and exploration, books about science and “big projects” and books about womanhood and relationships — but the common thread throughout is the way that the books inform Ramona’s life — and vice versa. Or, as the Australian Book Review, so cleverly pointed out, it is an “irresistible study of the symbiotic relationship, for the bookish, between life and books”.
Anyone who’s a reader, whether of fiction or non-fiction, will remember the person that introduced them to reading or encouraged their love of literature. For Ramona, it was her mother, a Jewish Holocaust survivor from Poland, who settled in Australia after the war and spent what little leisure time she had reading. The opening lines of the book sum it up well:
Reading a book, my mother would stretch out in our lounge room on one of the deep purple divans that would be made up later into beds, her soft body covered in a blanket, her attention absorbed by the pages in her hands. She was lost to us.
And her father, also a Jewish Holocaust survivor, introduced her to the power of storytelling at an early age by telling her dark moral fables about not reaching for things beyond your grasp, “the opposite of romantic stories about heroic adventures and magic powers and brave quests”.
A book for book lovers
Similarly, anyone who’s a reader will remember when they joined a library for the first time. For Ramona, it was the intimate nature of Camberwell Mobile Library — much less imposing and daunting “for immigrant families like mine” than the main library — which became such a source of great joy when she joined it, aged 10.
So Mama took my hand and got me registered, and I had a card of which I was as proud as my parents were of our house. I was shown which books were for children and which for grown-ups. But I quickly tired of the children’s section. I discovered that, as I lay on my belly on the bus floor, with its smell of lino and rubber, I could read the spines in the adult section. There I spied Kafka and Kazantzakis, Kerouc and Koestler. There I learned to put things in alphabetical order.
Of course, I could keep on quoting endless chunks of this book, because I identified with so much of it — how we grow and change as readers over time, how we pursue certain themes and topics in our reading, how we learn and grow from what we discover and how literature expands our horizons. But I won’t, because you really need to read this book to see for yourself how brilliantly Ramona nails the relationship between a person’s life (and experiences) and the books that they read.
What I liked most was how the narrative expertly interweaves Ramona’s own story with stories by other people. And even though she’s incredibly well read, it’s certainly not pompous or elitist, but very down to earth, warm and conversational — just like her broadcasting style. In fact, opening the pages is a bit like sitting down with Ramona over a cup of tea and having a lovely old natter about books. It’s such an enjoyable treat — and I can honestly say I was sad when I came to the last page.
Fortunately, the journey doesn’t end there, because By the Book: A Reader’s Guide to Life has an appendix listing all the books mentioned in the text so you can pursue them at your own leisure. Needless to say, I’ve already added several to my wishlist — and no doubt, you will too.