Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 23, 2012

By the Book, A Reader’s Guide to Life (2012), by Ramona Koval

Great BooksLike many booklovers, I like books that are about books and reading and I have quite a few.  My favourite is Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World by David  Denby.   The book is his very engaging account of returning to Columbia University in middle age and reading the canonical course works, many of which he had read before when he was previously an undergraduate.   I’ve read huge chunks of it but never finished it because I keep getting distracted into reading the book that he’s writing about, if I haven’t already read it. And then I don’t get back to his book for ages…

A History of ReadingI also have A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel which appealed to me straight away when I saw its charming cover.  This young woman looks so neat and self-possessed as she reads, totally absorbed in her little book.  Not like me, sprawled untidily on a sofa, curled up on the chair in my library, or huddled under the bed covers incapable of turning out the light until I simply cannot read any more.  I don’t have any self-restraint when I’m reading. By the BookInterrupt me at your peril!

By the Book, A Reader’s Guide to Life by Ramona Koval is one will appeal to many, I am sure. Ramona Koval was the popular host of The Book Show which used to be on Radio National, and I suspect that many will buy this book as much for nostalgia and loyalty as for its content.  It’s the perfect Christmas stocking filler for booklovers still mourning the loss of the show.

The Child That Books BuiltBy the Book is a memoir of a life spent with books.  It reminded me of Francis Spufford’s The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading (2003) in which he showed how reading shaped his world, brought him solace, and nurtured his imagination.  For Ramona Koval, reading is intertwined with memories of her mother, the growth of her attitude towards feminism and the mistakes she made in choosing husbands.  She also writes about how certain books initially attracted her to science and how her opportunities for travel influenced her reading.  And she’s a bit of a romantic: she likes tragic tales and heroic endeavours.  I read Scott of the Antarctic and The Kon-Tiki Expedition too, as a teenager.

I was interested to see how much we had read the same books.  We grew up and became readers at a time when there was less choice in what was available, and there was a general consensus among the gatekeepers to literature about what was good and worthwhile reading.  These are the books that were prominent on the shelves in the library; they are the ones that were promoted in the bookshops.   They were probably reviewed too, though I never read book reviews in those days.  Where Koval’s mother guided her reading, I relied primarily on the recommendations of my father, and of course the reading lists at school and then university.  Back then I rarely read a book recommended by a friend.  Indeed until the advent of virtual book groups and the book blogging community, I had few friends who like to read like I do.

Many of the books Koval writes about with affection are the stories of my childhood too, and the authors she read as a teenager and young adult are the ones that were a kind of informal canon: Orwell, Huxley, Solzhenitsyn, Kafka, Joseph Heller, Isaac Asimov and so on.  They were mostly British and American authors and the few Europeans that were available in translation.  But Koval doesn’t mention the popular classics: no Jane Austen, none of the Brontës, nothing by Dickens. Not many by Australians.  Not so many by women authors either.

Not until she, like me, discovered feminism.  It was her mother who introduced her to Fay Weldon, Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan.  She doesn’t mention Germaine Greer which is an odd omission: The Female Eunuch was the one book read by all my friends, everyone I knew of my generation.   You couldn’t join in a dinner party conversation if you hadn’t read it…

Our tastes seem to diverge as time went by.  We both like books that tackle large unlikely subjects rather than a single relationship, but she went on to read travel books and more tales of the heroic age of polar exploration.  She read widely from contemporary authors that she could interview on radio, while shelf-by-shelf I worked my way through all the remaining classics that I could find in the library:  Trollope, Henry James, Tolstoy and the other Russians, Dickens, Thomas Hardy, E.M.Forster, Graham Greene, Virginia Woolf.  (Yes, *blush* all those dead white males!)  For light reading, I went through all the Agatha Christies there are, Nevil Shute and doorstoppers like Leon Uris.

Koval also doesn’t mention enjoying the challenging books that I like to tackle: James Joyce’s Ulysses, postmodernists like Italo Calvino, and of course Patrick White.  These are the literary equivalent of a PB, and I can’t imagine not having their ideas lodged in my brain.

I could find few Australian authors mentioned (and no indigenous ones), only Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children and Hazel Rowley’s biography of existentialism’s power couple, Tete-a-tete: The Lives and Loves of Simone De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Koval tells us that Theroux recommends Patrick White, but not that she’s read him herself.  I can’t help feeling a little bit disappointed by this. This book by what Jane Sullivan calls ‘the voice of literature’ will be widely read and it could have been an opportunity to celebrate Australian literature.

But the authenticity of her thoughts about the books suggests  that the books chosen are the ones that have indeed shaped her life.  Despite the warm personal tone I think it must have been a difficult book to write.  Koval’s memoir reveals aspects of her personal life along with the books and some of that is mildly melancholy.

Author: Ramona Koval
Title: By the Book, A Reader’s Guide to Life
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2012
ISBN: 9781922079060
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text.


Fishpond: By the Book: A Reader’s Guide to Life
Or direct from Text including as an eBook.


  1. Thank you for your excellent blog. I too mourn the loss of Ramona Koval’s The Book Show and I too loved Denby’s “Great Books”. Actually you are the only person I know who has read Denby’s book but that’s no surprise because not many people I know, read the same way I do. Thank goodness for book bloggers. Some years ago I heard him interviewed and raced out to get the book. His book gave me a glimpse into so many important books I will probably never have the capacity to read plus I loved his story telling. Thanks for giving us a glimpse into Ramona’s book. I hope her wonderful depth of knowledge is not lost to us. She is a treasure and I for one want to continue listening to her marvelous intelligent interviews.


    • Hello Cynthia, welcome to chatting about books here at ANZ LitLovers, and how lovely to meet someone who loves that Denby book too:)
      If you keep an eye on Ramona’s new blog ( she mentions there that she did a (post ABC) session at 3RRR and I think that when she gets the hang of blogging and realises how powerful it can be for marketing herself and her writing, she will use it to give advance notice of events. She might be on Facebook and/or Twitter too, I haven’t looked. She’s also a regular at the Wheeler Centre if you are in Melbourne, and if you subscribe to their newsletter you will always know when she’s there doing what she does so well, interviewing authors.
      All the best for the festive season, I hope you’re better organised than I am – I simply must put the laptop away and go and put up some decorations!


  2. Thanks for your thoughts on this, Lisa. I enjoyed reading about the parallels you drew with Koval and where your own tastes diverted. I have an interview with Koval in the current Big Issue. I enjoyed the book, even though my experience is quite different, simply because of her enthusiasm. And I also share some of her tastes: for European lit, ambitious books, and pop science (which I always mean to read more of). She’s writing another book with more about her family, I believe. She only just touches on them in this.


    • Wow, you interviewing Ramona Koval, that would have been hard because she knows all the tricks LOL! Congratulations:)
      I thought I could see a book coming about these family issues: I wonder whether she will venture into fiction, or write a memoir of some sort? She mentions in this book that she wrote a short story and Wikipedia says she wrote a novel called Samovar in 1996 but I’ve only ever read her non-fiction. We’ll have to wait and see…


  3. I’m hoping this is one Helen has chosen from my list; and also that it comes tomorrow.

    I hope you’re behaving sensibly today. At last we seem to have worked out how to keep the inside of the car cool when travelling on days like today. The brunch went well and present giving restricted to the children was enough. I rushed away on Saturday and forgot my camera. I used Bob’s and hope for a few good photos. It’s odd hearing Mark and Anne referred to as Pa and Grandma.



    • If not, you can always borrow my copy:)
      Today was easy because we simply stayed indoors except to put some washing out. I feel sorry for anyone that had to be out and about in it, though. It didn’t quite make the estimated top temperature here, only 37 degress, but it’s always a little cooler than the CBD here because we’re closer to the bay.


  4. I ve history of reading ,like sound of great books ,bit like the hill book where she spent a year reread classic from her shelves ,all the best stu


  5. I am a total sucker for books about reading life and historical reading experience so this sounds a really interesting book to add to my collection. I’m really surprised by the omission of Greer though!


    • Hello Alex, and welcome:)
      I was too, and that’s because it crops up in memes all the time as the One Book that influenced so many women’s lives. It influenced many men’s lives too because their women thought and behaved differently after reading it.
      Maybe – this is sheer speculation – she did read it and it had an impact too personal to write about?


  6. […] Ramona Koval, By the book: A reader’s guide to life (2012) (Lisa’s review) […]


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