National Library of Australia director general Anne-Marie Schwirtlich at her Yarralumla home.

National Library of Australia director general Anne-Marie Schwirtlich at her Yarralumla home. Photo: Colleen Petch

ON AN AVERAGE day the director-general of the National Library of Australia, Anne-Marie Schwirtlich, is asked what book she is reading at least once. And even though she reads constantly at work, she sets aside an hour in the evening to curl up with a good book. It's how she relaxes.

''I don't claim to read a lot of highbrow material - my husband says I should joke I read Proust.''

Despite the disclaimer, her reading list is fairly impressive. And she's quick - starting Amitav Ghosh's In An Antique Land on Sunday night and on page 151 by Wednesday morning.

Her bedside table has a pile of books and journals such as the The New Yorker and Slightly Foxed as the 56-year-old always has a few things on the go. ''I have a weakness for journals and current affairs magazines, and for any magazine that talks about interior design or architecture.''

This love is clearly visible in the crisp lines and modern decor of her Yarralumla home, of which books are a major decorative feature. The back wall of the television room is covered with a floor-to-ceiling bookcase. It's packed two deep. Another bookcase groaning under the weight of titles fills a wall in the loungeroom. The books vary, and Ms Schwirtlich likes to read biographies and fiction but won't touch science fiction or fantasy novels.

Some books are bought online, but Ms Schwirtlich says it's the act of going into a bookstore for a browse that she loves.

''At the National Library, we just have the best bookshop and the pleasure of actually going to the shop having a look at what's new, what's in stock, and to hear what people are saying they're enjoying - to me that's a great pleasure.''

Given the vast number of books in her home, what is startling is how many Ms Schwirtlich gives away.

''I pass my books on - when I read fiction, I send them forth to be read by as many as possible.''

But her Jane Austin novels are the exception. Like a cup of tea or a home-cooked meal. Ms Schwirtlich dips into Austin novels for comfort.

''I'd make Jane Austin mandatory if I ran the world - it's such a great set of observations about day-to-day life and human foibles.''

On average, she would spend $300 a month on books, not including journals and magazines.

''We get lots and lots of journals and magazines on subscription,'' she said. ''So I don't want to think about the total cost.''

■ Reading list this summer

Amitav Ghosh - In An Antique Land

James Button - Speechless