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Ramona Koval on why and how she reads

 Ramona Koval on why and how she reads


Last night I popped along to a talk, hosted by Alicia Sometimes, with the wonderful Ramona Koval, former host of the Book Show and author of the newly released By The Book: A Readers Guide to Life, which is published through Text Publishing. As usual, I arrived armed with paper and pen (quite a nice pen, actuallymight have to use it again), and took copious amounts of notes.

How'By the Book'came about

Ramona described coming home one day, looking around at her bookshelves, and wondering at the stories behind her book collection. There were many she hadnt read, such as a huge pile of classics, and others from her childhood that shed continued to cart about with her through copious moves. What was it about these books that made her want to hang on to them?

By the Book Ramona Koval 196x300 Ramona Koval on why and how she readsShe backtracked to note that her mothers reading habits had a huge influence on her. Her mother, a childhood survivor of the Holocaust, had not had a formal education, and was very much an autodidact as well as a voracious reader: Ramonas image of her mother is of her reclining on a couch, book in handreading and baking, Ramona said when describing her mothers key interests.

Interestingly, Ramonas mother wouldnt talk about her reading, but would instead leave books in her wake for Ramona to find, resulting in a sort of silent conversation between the two: Ramona described being in her mothers vacated space, and being able to glean an insight into where her mother had recently been.

Her mother was always supportive of Ramonas reading, and would always strive to find whichever books that Ramona asked for. Ramona recounted an amusing anecdote about asking, at the age of twelve, for a copy of a book shed been hearing a lot about on the TVthe'Kama Sutra. Her mother went off to buy a copy, and did so in spite of the shop owners misgivingsshe liked to read banned books, and made her point further by reading it on the conservative 48 tram on the way home. (Ramona, on her part, was a little bit underwhelmed by the book, which wasnt quite what shed been expecting).

On revering books

When asked about an incident in which her mother had prayed over a book that shed dropped on the ground, Ramona, who is from an Orthodox Polish Jewish family, noted that her mother, had a plethora of prayers for daily events, including a prayer that had to be said over a holy book. For her part, Ramona doesnt necessarily treat books as though theyre sacrosanct: she writes in their margins, underlines bits of text, and adds notes at the back. (The same is not true for others books, she reassured us) For her this was almost a matter of record-keeping: for so long books were her job, and keeping her interview questions and the passage she wanted an author to read together with the text kept things streamlined. She received so many books through her work on the Book Show that it was anxiety-provoking, a situation not unlike this:

Reading for curiosity

When asked about whether Ramona read on holidays, or would use the time to take a holiday from reading, she pointed out that shes never seen books as a chore, and that shes always read what she wanted to readotherwise reading could easily feel like homework. Shes driven by curiosity and enjoys books on topics that she knows nothing about: the history of sand, whales and so on. She used to see herself as a sort of Open University of the Air, where she could share her learning with everyone else. In order to do the job that she did, you have to be incredibly curious, and she found being a literary journalist a great privilege. She was able to ask anyone just about anything, she said, noting that authors like to have their work entered into and appreciated.

Ramona went on to discuss how people change as readers, and says that its not only this, but also her misreadings of books in the past, that shes become more aware of throughout the process of writing'By the Book. She described her reading of'Madame Bovary in high school, and how her mothers description of Madame Bovary as a woman ahead of her time influenced her first reading of the book. It was only on her second reading, where she read more carefully the first chapter introducing Charles Bovary as a quietly dignified character, that she realised that the reader was meant to feel sorry for him. Books have lessons, she said, but people often arent ready to hear them until later.

Transitioning from science to books

Ramonas first career was in science: she loved the idea that science could explain the whole universe through rules. She liked the predictability and scope, and also the research and theory involvedbut after a while realised that it wasnt the process of discovery that she loved, but rather the results and stories that came out of it. The renowned neurologist and author Oliver Sacks thinks similarly, she says: he can see the poetry in what hes working with.

Her reading goal has always been to find out how the world works, why were here, and how we got here. She has always enjoyed sharing what she finds interesting with others.

On making friends with authors

When Alicia Sometimes commented on Ramonas way with authors off-air, Ramona noted that it was her job to meet people who had written fantastic books, and to get the best out of them, and introduce their work. She found that often the best writers were confident and well behaved; often it was the badly behaved ones who were plagued by a fear of being discovered as not as good as they think. (This involved some hilarious anecdotes about turkey thermometers, yurts, and travelling 100kms for an apple strudel, but I was too busy laughing rather than taking notes. Sorry! She did tell us, though, that Joseph Heller once said to her, if you find love, you should take it!)

On reading when travelling

Ramona is the type of person who likes to over-prepare when travelling: she learns the history, politics, geography and history of a place. Shell also read books in their home countries: she read Washington Irvings'Tales of the Alhambra in Granada, and Orwells'Coming up for Air in Barcelona. Its like having a conversation with someone long dead, she said. When in Germany and undertaking a German language immersion programme, she read Alexandra Richies 1100 page'Fausts Metropolis'for relief, noting that anything in English feels sublimely simple after the exhaustion of working in another language all day.

She tends to travel with an ereader, and loves that its possible to cart around a whole library on one. However, some of the downsides of using an ereader include having bought the same book twice, and not being able to get a feel for where she is in a book. Print books call to you, she said, in a way that ebooks cant. However, e-formats do allow for the enhancement of text in ways that print books cant manageshe cited Will Selfs essay on Kafka as an example.

Books that have defeated her

Although a voracious and wide-ranging reader, Ramona has been defeated by some books: the'Iliad and'Odyssey, the'Mahabharata,'the Scandinavian epics,'1001 Nights and'The Tale of Genji.

On choosing books to read post-Book Show

Ramona has mostly been reading books given to her by others, and also looks to reviews, particularly by critics who are sympatico with her reading, trusted friends and bookshop owners, who are often ardent and deep readers themselves.

She has a love of classic literature as well, and feels that its immensely important that people read the classics as they contain the lessons of ages, although she admits that its helpful to have a trusted voice, critic or teacher to guide readers. Civilisations are based on conversations around books, and there is a need for discussion of these texts, and for people who can explain the traditions in them.

What next?

Ramona is working on a second book for Text, and also hinted that she might be returning to her literary journalist ways in some form. (And the crowd rejoiced!)

By The Book: A Readers Guide to Life is published by Text

By the Book Ramona Koval 196x300 Ramona Koval on why and how she reads





  1. Ramona Koval on why and how she reads (my notes from last nights event at the @wheelercentre) @text_publishing

  2. Ramona Koval on why and how she reads (my notes from last nights event at the @wheelercentre) @text_publishing

  3. Roman Koval sounds like an interesting woman, and what a wonderful way to spend an evening. I loved your touch of the Lucille Ball moment, that made my morning. :)

    • Stephanie /

      Ramonas greatI used to download the Bookshow podcast every day and listen to it on the way to work!

      I cant claim credit for the Lucille Ball moment: its exactly the example that Ramona gave, including a pretty good re-enactment! :)

  4. I was a big fan of The Book Show but I still remember that there were many times when Ramona refused to divulge her opinion on just about anything regarding the authors and books. Sometimes when an author would ask her a question (not a tricky one or controversial), simply asking for an opinion, Ramona would be very reluctant and skirt the question entirely. Its the only thing I had an issue with.
    Saying that, I respect Ramona and her interviews were amazing. Shes very knowledgeable and an asset to the literary community. I listened to that show every single day and was devastated when she left (after that mess last year). Nowadays, the Books and Arts Daily show which replaced The Book Show started off well but then tapered right off. Sad.

    • Stephanie /

      Interesting point, Soniaperhaps that was what Ramona was referring to when she described her job as to show an author in their best light and to help draw attention to their work. I could imagine that it would be very easy to get yourself in trouble given the small size of the literary community! (Its not quite the same thing given that Ramona is primarily a journalist, and a public figure at that, bud I do know of a number of authors who have been told off for commenting on other Australian authors books, so I can imagine it being a tough line to walk!)

      I used to listen to the Book Show walking to work, and I miss the strange and eclectic mix of books and authors that would be featured. I gave the Books and Arts Daily show a couple of tries, but I didnt really connect with it.