While working a dead-end job in my mid-20s, I spent several hours setting up an Excel spreadsheet in which I listed every book I could think of that I’d ever read, starting with The Wind in the Willows. I devotedly logged each subsequent book into that spreadsheet until sometime around age 28, when I lost track of it in the shuffle of changing jobs.
I’ve since moved on to an app that allows me to continue my obsessive book tracking, but I still think wistfully of that spreadsheet and the books it contained. So My Life with Bob, the new memoir by New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul, resonated deeply with me.
It would be a ridiculous understatement to call Paul an avid reader. Whether highbrow Russian literature or V.C. Andrews’ incest-laced Flowers in the Attic, she reads with gusto. And she records it all in Bob, her “Book of Books,” a well-worn journal in which she’s listed every book she’s read for 28 years.
Paul first wrote about Bob in a 2012 Times essay; turning that essay into a book was not an easy decision.
“There was a huge amount of trepidation and fear,” she admits, speaking by phone from New York City. “I didn’t actually think of it as a memoir, and it was only when I read something that said, ‘Pamela Paul to write a memoir,’ that I thought, oh my God, I’m writing a memoir.
“It’s so personal. I’m usually very cautious writing about myself. I have a great amount of admiration for those who say, damn it all, I’ll write what I want. It’s very brave, but the journalism I’ve always done is feature writing, where people I interview are voluntarily participating; they’re in it of their own volition. It felt odd to me to be writing not only about myself but the people in my life.”
Paul’s previous books—By the Book; Parenting, Inc.; Pornified; and The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony—are investigative looks at different aspects of social and consumer behavior. In My Life with Bob, in contrast, she is her own subject. Her chapters focus on key books in her life, from The Grapes of Wrath to The Secret History, and her reflections on what those books mean to her and what they say about her.
“The first outline was 64 chapters!” Paul remembers. “It was really sad to cut out books; each book I cut out was like cutting out a chapter of my life in a way. It was hard to think about what books captured my intellectual life and my internal life and my social life, where I was in my life at a given moment.”
My Life with Bob catalogues Paul’s journeys—both literal and metaphorical—including her time teaching English in Thailand and her early years in the New York publishing world.
In one of the most poignant chapters, Paul writes about reading with children, and that sudden jolt of realization when your children no longer want to read whatever you hand them.
“The ability to choose one’s own books becomes slightly less satisfying when you realize your own children have that power, too, and they insist on reading about rainbow fairies or killer cats,” she writes.
In the Paul household, books play a pivotal role.
“I’m obsessed with the idea of what makes a reader,” she says. “Part of it with our kids was total deprivation of any other type of entertainment. We’re horrible, terrible parents. No TV, no video games; we barely have computers for the kids. The idea of entering into a narrative in which you are actively constructing and contributing to that narrative is something that you have to learn to do. I get it—I love TV and movies, too, and in a way it’s a lot easier on the brain because you’re not conjuring up images in your brain of what characters look like.
“So I joke about deprivation, but it’s really enormous abundance. My kids have a lot of books. We regularly have to go through and purge.”
Even with the lure of technology, Paul believes books will remain central to our culture and that it’s up to parents to help imbue that interest in young readers.
“If you have fresh fruit but you also have candy, the kids might eat the fruit, but they’re gonna eat a lot of candy,” she said. “One thing I find very comforting is that for young people especially, real books—paper books—continue to be more popular than eBooks. For young children, it’s about having that tactile experience and being in the lap of a parent looking at something together.”
She may be the editor of the New York Times Book Review, but Paul is anything but a book snob. She reads widely and deeply, admitting in My Life with Bob that she hated The Catcher in the Rye (she thought Holden Caulfield was a jerk) and loved Nancy Drew.
Sometimes, she writes, we choose books as voyeurs of others’ misery. She recalls reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich during the summer after her freshman year of college, drawn to Holocaust reading “like many other morbid kids with Jewish ancestry.” And sometimes we choose books based on a recommendation. Which, by the way, Paul resists when possible, as she describes in another thought-provoking chapter.
My Life with Bob is a love story about books, and it will be irresistible to bookworms who recognize that what you read reflects who you are. Paul’s writing is warm, revealing and elegant, and at times, quite funny, such as when she’s too engrossed in The Hunger Games to realize that her newborn son isn’t latching on properly while nursing.
“Once I put the book down, I returned to my resting emotional state of maternal guilt,” she writes. “My lunatic years of turbo lactivism, nursing my children until they were weaned, were tainted not by formula but by the competing desire to read while they fed.”
My only quibble—and it’s a tiny one—is that Paul includes just one tantalizing photo of one page of Bob in her book. Did she ever consider reprinting Bob in full as an appendix?
“Oh no,” she says with a laugh. “That would be like hanging out my laundry.”