There’s something so engaging about Ramona Koval. It’s not entirely down to her extraordinary intelligence, her warmth, or even her absolute love of books: a perception of the world through words that is immediately familiar to me, though all of those things are true. I think it’s the combination of an almost iconic canniness mingled with vulnerability that comes through her writing. There’s an absolute intimacy that invites complicity.
Her latest work, By the Book, is a combination of memoir and a homage to some of the major books that have woven themselves into her life, forming themselves into a spine for her experiences. I’m not sure many authors could pull this kind of writing off. By the Book is both academic and astute in terms of the analyses of the 115 or so books that are specifically referenced, and moving in terms of the stories it tells. Koval does indeed pull off the co-mingling of memoir and literary criticism in a way that seems natural and appropriate.
Though light-handed, quick, and easy to read, By the Book seems to encompass a range of historical events, including the Holocaust, which isn’t explored but which forms the underlying, nearly unspoken history that shadows her parents and the way in which Koval communicates with her mother. Other historical occasions also come into the overall story, from Marie Curie’s work on radioactivity and Watson and Crick’s work on DNA, which provided inspiration for Koval’s own scientific studies, the rise of the women’s movement in the 70s, a series of essays titled Sisterhood is Powerful edited by Robin Morgin, Fay Weldon’s Down Among the Women, Oliver Sack’s work on human perception and illness, Admindsen’s The South Pole, and Markham’s Scott’s Last Expedition. These other tales of travel and exploration all provide additional stories that underline and bolster Koval’s story which looks at love and loss, the guilt of growing up as the child of a survivor, the way in which we define ourselves as human beings, and how we make meaning, as well as the whole notion of what role books play in our lives.
By the Book brings the reader into the story right from the start, and envelopes us in a kind of shared conversation about ourselves. By the Book is all about conversation – and as we ‘converse’ with Koval through her own history, and the books that interweave with her personal story, the reader is not only enticed, but drawn in. The more we read about Koval’s life and the influence that the books she read had on it, the more we think about our own lives and the ways in which books have shaped us.
On one level, this is a book about books, taking us through close readings of classics as disperse as Hans Christian Anderson’s The Red Shoes and Blyton’s Noddy to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Darwin’s The Origin of Species, Carson’s Silent Spring, and Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. The deep reading that Koval does naturally, and almost, at times, against her will, becomes a roadmap for the reader, tantalising us with descriptions of books we might also like to read or reminding us of books we’ve read and might like to re-read. That alone makes By the Book a wonderful book to be treated, much like Radio National’s The Book Show, which Koval hosted for many years, as a tool for readers to use. On a deeper level, however, is the story. This is not just Koval’s story, though it’s a good one rich with pathos, drama, and intrigue, but the stories that make all of us who we are. Ultimately, the question of why we read, and why books matter sits at the heart of this book. It’s a question that Koval answers frequently throughout By the Book:
“We read to find out what the world is like, to experience lots of lives, not just the one we live. If it is true that our lives are chaotic and we crave a shape, stories are the shapes that we put on experience, containing all the wisdom of the world.” (52)
As Koval not only tells us, but shows us in the construction of By the Book, we become our experiences, whether that’s reading about Robert Scott’s fatal polar expedition or travelling in a sledge behind a team of Alaskan huskies in Canada. By the Book is, quite simply, a wonderful book for book lovers everywhere. It’s one to read for the joy of its own story and re-read for the joy of the multitudes it contains.