Thursday, November 15, 2012
By the Book - Ramona Koval
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."