At a European Council seminar, years ago, I remember meeting a tiny young woman with an immaculate British accent. Surprisingly enough, she was not British nor had she ever visited the United Kingdom. In fact, she’d never had a day of proper English lessons in her life! At lunch break, one day, I asked her what the secret of mastering the English language was. The woman, originally from Ukraine, gave me the following disarming response: “I’ve been listening to BBC radio from the moment I went to school; it was my refuge, my entertainment.”
The power of radio is, of course, immense. it’s the only medium that remains unaffected – if not empowered – by the spread of the Internet. What has changed, though, is its quality. And not in a good way. It is highly unlikely that a foreigner in Greece would learn flawless Greek off radio producers speaking it property – which is to say, in the same unorthodox manner as my Ukrainian friend learnt English off the BBC.
Even fewer are those producers who show appreciation towards their audience by meticulously preparing their allotted two-hour spot on the air: collecting and presenting news and information, preparing special anniversary edition shows, suggesting a night out on the town, reviewing books, offering travel and music tips, etc.
Maria Kozakou is one of those people. She hosts a show called “Transistor” on Hellenic Radio 2 (ERΑ2), every morning from 10 to 12. Her clear, bold, and expressive voice recalls the good old days of quality radio in Greece.
What books are you currently reading?
Ah, it’s the summer holiday season and I’m “detoxing” from my online environment, so I’ve decided to set myself high standards. At the same time, I’m trying something entire contrary to my own reading habits, so I’m reading different books at the same time, sometimes even on the same day. My three current reads are John Verdon’s Wolf Lake – his latest crime novel and my ultimate beach read; Giles Milton’s When Churchill slaughtered sheep and Stalin robbed a bank: History’s unknown chapters – which is the book I was reading just before I started replying to your questions. Milton is a historian and during his research he’s chanced upon small, interesting “testimonies” by History’s protagonists or simple sideline witnesses. It’s a fun and easy read and the briefness of its chapters allows for a few days’ pause in between them. Finally, I’m reading Botsford and Robinson’s Hellenic History. It’s a blockbuster of a book and it calls for meticulously study, rather than a relaxed read; you know, one of those books one reads on a desk, keeping notes.
Why did you choose these books?
One can guess from the nature of the books themselves:
The first one is a classic crime novel, well-suited to salt-kissed beaches. I’ve read all previous books starring detective David Gurney. John Verdon is to me what Jo Nesbo is to others: I’ve been hooked on him ever since I read Think of a Number, which I found incredibly smart. At the bookstore, fans of Verdon assured me his latest was his best. I don’t think I agree! As for Giles Milton, he’s a really good populariser of history. And he’s fun. His book is my one pick from all the recent publications, as it only came out in Greek, from Patakis, in June. Finally, Hellenic History is an emblematic work, one of those books you need to have read before you die, as they say. I am greatly concerned with dissolving any historical misunderstandings I might have. I like making sure I’ve got a clear and correct knowledge of things, especially of ones that are greatly obfuscated by the national curriculum. History is one of them.
Is there a radio show dedicated to books on your station?
We make several references to books and reading in many of our daily shows on ERA2. On an arts & culture radio such as ours, books can’t be reduced to a syndicated column, a rubric, or a five-minute instalment: they’re everywhere.
Do you suggest specific books to your listeners?
It’s truly personal show, so I often share my thoughts on something I have read. I guess that’s not what you’d call “book placement” or presentation.
Where do you buy your books from?
Foreign language books I buy off the internet. Greek publications, from bookstores.
No e-shopping for the Greek ones?
I e-compare the prices, you might say, once I know what books I want to buy.
Is there a book you go back to from time to time?
Yes. It’s a small book I read overnight many years ago, Milan Kundera’s Slowness. I am not exactly sure why, though. I guess there are certain parts of the book that fill me with a sense of consolation, of relief. I also keep going back to the work of Georgios Vizyenos.
Is there a book that forever changed your relationship to literature?
My relationship with literature was decisively changed just after I graduated from high school, when I first got into university. What actually happened was that literature itself changed my life. And I have The Portrait of Dorian Grey to thank for that.
Do you scribble notes on the books you read? Do you bend their pages?
I used to take notes on the side of my textbooks. I now prefer to have empty, white pages on which to scribble and which I keep inside each book. I don’t bend pages, for the same reason I don’t cut flowers.
How many hours a day do you spend reading? Do you have a favourite spot for reading at home?
I usually read at the end of my working day, and somewhere comfortable, I guess. Reading to me means silence, rest, reflection.
Your favourite bookstore?
“Politeia”. I’ve been visiting it since I was a tiny little thing! We grew up together!
Is there room for more bookshops?
I am not familiar with the demands of the market, so to speak in order to give you a sound answer. What I can tell you is that our fellow Athenians are a far cry from regular readers. Were they so, our recent history – and our journalism – would probably have been very different.
Give us your take on the Greeks’ relationship with reading.
I don’t know what recent research says on the quantitative nature of this relationship, qualitatively, however, it’s a disappointment. How else can one explain the deteriorating level of our linguistic capacities, our dwindling ability to express ourselves, but most of all the overwhelming consumption of populist political lies! Reading books and falling for populist lies (i.e. disregarding basic rules of logic) are two, inversely proportional, acts. I guess we’ve hit an all-time low here.
Do you find that books are expensive in Greece?
For anyone who wants to stay on top of recent publications, buying books is a very expensive sport. But there are bargains around, in local bookstores, as well as online. One need to be on the lookout for them. The centre of Athens, from Monastiraki to Exarcheia, is a treasure trove for book hunters, especially when it comes to second hand books. He who seeks shall find, as they say. I really hope reading becomes a popular sport! In reality, a book is the most inexpensive, important gift one can give.
Do you ever read on your phone or some other e-reading device?
For me, reading – as we’ve been discussing it here – is totally at odds with e-platforms of any sort. I spend 100% of my worktime in front of a screen, I read dozens of documents on my mobile device every day. But to me, literature has the smell of printed paper.
Do you have a favourite Greek writer? Why?
I have a soft spot for Georgios Vizyenos. From the moment I read him, “the rhythm of the world was changed within me”, as he himself has written.
Your favourite literary character?
Huckleberry Finn. As a friend.
Would you ever buy or leave a book solely based on its cover?
What kind of music do you listen to when you read?
I have never been able to listen to music when reading literature, or when studying.
Apart from the three books I mentioned in the beginning of our conversation, I also have Tom Robbins’ Still Life with Woodpecker waiting on the side. He’s something, I tell you! I discovered him kind of late, but feel like he’s the only writer I know of that can make any long sentence feel truly exciting. His way of writing recalls writing exercises. And I love the way he thinks. I’m not going to say more; there are experts for such kinds of things. But the one thing I know is that he and I get along really well.
The backdrop of all my summer readings will be Crete; and then Athens, empty, in August.