The New York Times Book Review Editor Pamela Paul's Life With Bob
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For booklovers, there can be few things more seductive than reading about reading. Turning pages describing the experience of turning pages is like entering a flattering hall of mirrors, where you see yourself reflected everywhere you look.
This goes some way to explain why beloved literary characters are often great readers. Anne Shirley, Catherine Morland, Atticus Finch… The list of imaginary book fans is long and unsurprising when you think about it. After all, what better way is there to endear a fictional creation to a reader than to signal to the person holding the book that in many ways the character whose story they are consuming is just like them?
But writing about reading has its problems too. Nothing much happens when a person is engrossed in a book. On the surface, reading is a static and solitary pursuit. Unless you have very niche tastes, there is only so much mileage to be got from describing the texture of pages, the stitching of binding and the smell of glue.
As a result, non-fiction writers who build books around interactions with other books face a dilemma. Making reading the central focus of a narrative – rather than the backdrop, as it usually is in fiction – requires a wider focus than the simple description of encountering texts. The last thing authors or bibliophiles want is for writing about reading to be dull.
Consequently, such metabooks tend to take one of two approaches. Either they use reading as a jumping-off point from which to explore ideas, as in the case of works such as Tim Parks’ Where I’m Reading From, or they employ a journey through a particular set of texts to tell a story about their own lives and personal development, in the manner of British writer Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously.
Ostensibly, the editor of The New York Times Book Review Pamela Paul takes the latter approach in her bibliomemoir My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues. Built around Bob, her ‘Book of books’ in which she has recorded everything she has read since her high-school days, the work promises a detailed account of life seen through the lens of the narratives that have shaped one of the gatekeepers of the US book industry.
The reality is slightly different. Before you’re many pages in, it becomes clear that there is a good deal more memoir than reading in My Life with Bob. Although the chapters are named after some of the books on Paul’s list, they often contain only a cursory mention of the work in question – understandable when you learn that Bob contains little more than the titles of the books his keeper has read and therefore hardly provides the basis for an extensive discussion of texts encountered as much as three decades ago.
Instead, what makes up the bulk of the narrative is a series of lively accounts of Paul’s formative experiences, all of them linked in some way to her love of reading. Among the most engaging are her descriptions of various escapades during her wide-ranging and often intrepid travels – going without food for four weeks in response to reading Wild Swans while in rural China, accidentally dubbing Steinbeck’s classic novel The Plums of Fury when attempting to discuss books in French, falling in and out of love with scuba-diving and the man who introduced her to it, who, she realizes belatedly, she ought to have known was no good, on account of his love of Flashman.
Paul is a witty writer who has no hesitation in being frank about her failings and insecurities. She shares everything from the trauma of her divorce to her slowness to notice that her new-born baby wasn’t breastfeeding properly because she was too engrossed in reading...The Hunger Games.
When she applies this tone to her changing relationship with reading, the result is often very endearing. Coming from the editor of one of the world’s most-respected literary publications, anxieties about not being well read enough or finding poetry a struggle – when written about with Paul’s openness – feel deeply human and reassuring. Seasoned readers will empathize with her fetishization of the book as object, her literary crushes and her discussion of the horror of finding that someone you care about has read a work in a very different way from you.
Now and then, the breeziness of the tone and the amount that Paul attempts to pack in do some of her observations a disservice. Without space to devote more than a few paragraphs to most ideas, she occasionally risks sounding trite, and as though she is reinventing the wheel. Sometimes she makes points apparently without awareness of the lengthy discussions that have played out around many of the concepts upon which she touches. ‘Aren’t we all writers these days?’ she shrugs before proceeding to see off the whole question of the blurred and shifting line between reader and author in a single page.
It’s frustrating because Paul is clearly more thoughtful than these passages make her appear. At times, particularly towards the end of the book where the pace becomes almost breakneck, I found myself wishing I could pull her aside and ask her to expand on what she was saying or else encourage her to thin out her material so as to give what remained more room to breathe.
But, as Paul herself points out, though we may often wish we could talk to the authors whose work we read – and though we may feel a deep connection with the minds behind certain texts – such interaction is rarely possible. The books we encounter remain in the form in which they come to us; it is we who shift, change and grow in response to them.
As such, My Life with Bob stands as an entertaining account of the formation of an influential reader. What it lacks in depth, it makes up for in relatability. It does not break new ground, nor does it seek to. Instead, it offers booklovers a cosy encounter with the familiar; a mirror in which they can view their habits from different angles and recognize truths about themselves. It is that most welcome of literary beasts: an enjoyable read. And who doesn’t have shelf-room for that?