By the Book: A Reader’s Guide to Life by Ramona Koval


Reading this book recommended by Reading Matters was a very fun meander through the life of a Melbourne literary journalist as illustrated by the books on her shelves. She was born in the mid-50s to Polish parents who were fortunate to survive the Holocaust and landed in Australia after the war. Her mother read widely and encouraged Ramona to do so as well, including buying the Kama Sutra for her when she requested it at age 12.

One book that landed in her path by happenstance was the first volume of a work called Home Management, apparently published in the early 1950s. It notably suggested ways to liven up the old scraps in the larder, for example, "cold diced meat takes on a new lease of life set in aspic jelly with a few peas and egg slices for colour".  From there she goes on to write about books that did influence her, such as Madame Bovary, books by Collette, short stories by Grace Paley, and many more. I made additions to my to-be-read list as I made my way through this book. 

The tone is conversational as when she says about Grace Paley's "Goodbye and Good Luck", "I really want to read you the whole story–it is so lovely, so full of hope and grace." She often mentions her mother who died too young with love and regret and matter of factly mentions in passing some of her unfortunate life-choices. But the focus is on the books which loomed so large in her life that she eventually presented The Book Show, "the world's only daily radio program devoted to books, writing and publishing" (according to Wikipedia). 

Somehow books also lead her to some great adventures that she recounts for us including camping with a naturalist in the bush who chastised her for pointing at a tree full of birds, saying that no self-respecting naturalist would ever point at birds. "It was like traveling with a British public school headmaster crossed with one of the chaps from Monte Python." And the time she traveled by sled pulled by seven huskies in Canada.

She mentions reading Washington Irving's Tales of the Alhambra, reminding me that I couldn't get that book out of my ten-year-old daughter's hands so that we could actually see it while we were there. I enjoyed listening to the audiobook version a few years ago. And she writes about seeing the Sarajevo Haggadah, but didn't mentioned Geraldine Brooks' wonderful People of the Book.

Available as a Kindle book and print version through Amazon. Her book, Tasting Life Twice: Conversations with Remarkable Writers is in the UVa library.

Ramona Koval, By the Book: a Reader's Guide to Life, Text Publishing, 2012, 256 pages.



  • So glad to hear you enjoyed this one, Charlotte. It’s a lovely read, isn’t it? It actually made me dig out Madame Bovary from my shelves for a first-time read.

  • She is so good at being informative without being pedantic and telling her adventures without boasting. She seems like such an appealing person. I’m so glad I read about her in Reading Matters.


Recent Posts


Blogs I Like