In the midst of a Stage 4 lockdown here in Victoria’s Covid-19 pandemic you can still be surprised and pleased by a chance discovery. Who needs to travel further than five kilometers when there’s something to be found right at your desk?
Here’s a review of my By the Book: A reader’s Guide to Life (Text Publishing (2012) in Insight Magazine from 14th November 2012. Thanks Marjorie Lewis-Jones for your careful reading and your kind words.
“Reading By the Book is like spending a leisurely day at a friend’s house browsing her bookshelves, dipping into paragraphs here and there, asking this friend how she discovered certain authors and picking her brains about what she remembers of their writing and their lives.
Actually, no, it’s even better than that!
Imagine this friend of yours has interviewed some of the most delightful and intelligent authors in the world. This means she can offer you fly-on-the-wall snippets about how she met the author Roger Deakin in a Moroccan yurt in Edinburgh or how she revelled in interviewing Sir Roger Penrose, emeritus professor of mathematics at Oxford University, about truth and beauty.
She can make you jealous because she’s good friends with one of your favourite essayists (Eliot Weinberger) and because she read Faust’s Metropolis: A History of Berlin (by Alexandra Richie) in 1989 while living on the border between East and West Berlin.
She can tell you how travel writer Paul Theroux recommends that the best book to read while travelling is a novel that has nothing to do with the country you are visiting. And that Theroux suggests Patrick White’s Fringe of Leaves as ideal if you’re travelling to California and Riders in the Chariot as fitting if you’re venturing to Alaska.
Your friend will also tell you how failing her first year university biology exam led her to change from her long-cultivated dream of a career in science to a career in journalism.
You’ve seen her in action at writer’s festivals and heard her smooth interviewing style on ABC radio as she presented its much-loved book show over many years. Therefore, while you might not have known that she cut her teeth in voice production using a friend from Hebrew school’s reel-to-reel recorder (and honed them further by working at 3RRR editing magnetic tape with a razor blade and chinagraph pencil), what you do know is that, career-wise, she never looked back.
With journalistic skill and daughterly love, this friend of yours can send you into dreamy imaginings of her Polish-Jewish mother lying back on a purple couch reading as an escape from an affectionless marriage and to improve her English.
She can enchant you with tales of her own nascent adventures in reading stretched out on the floor of the mobile lending library in North Balwyn. You’ll realise this was a library big enough to hold her interest but small enough to help her think she was getting a handle on the knowledge these books could offer her. Moreover, you’ll note that the humble bookmobile was this clever suburban girl’s entrée into the magical worlds books contained.
She can seduce you with her bookish erudition leading you to fossick for stories that have long been her favourites, like Grace Paley’s “Goodbye and Good Luck”, Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes” and “The Trial” by Franz Kafka.
She can set you scurrying to research the masters of feuilleton which, you learn somewhat belatedly from her, is “a short literary article said to be best at just a page, and written at a café table”.
She can recount, in Scheherazade detail, a meandering tale of the Sarajevo Haggadah — a medieval codex now considered so valuable it is insured for more than a billion dollars. This paperback-sized book, barely survived warfare in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early 1990s. The bombardments, your friend says, were targeted at museums, libraries, archives and cultural institutions and were “designed to destroy any evidence that people of ethnic and religious groups had for generations lived and worked together”.
Along with these more recent, war-based narratives, this friend can also move you with accounts of the stories surrounding her own parents’ lives. Both were Holocaust survivors and lived their days as immigrants in Australia in the shadow of World War II. This played out in family unhappiness and rancour that led your friend to scour literature for how normal families — happy families — might work.
What I’m getting at here is that by far the loveliest feature of Ramona Koval’s new book is that she treats all her readers as friends. She so willingly shares her love of reading and her own life stories it’s easy for a reader to think that you know her and that she cares about your reading life, too.
This, then, is a book to be cherished, enjoyed and read quickly, in one gulp. After the first swallow you should read it again, slowly — taking notes and following up on the threads that most intrigue.
As Koval intended to illustrate, there are myriad gems of books and authors waiting for you to seek out and befriend. You can do it, she whispers, book by book.