My Life With Bob by Pamela Paul

The first book I grabbed from my Christmas haul was, as I predicted in a previous post, My Life With Bob by Pamela Paul (2017), which my parents got me and which was one of the really difficult-to-resist books under Project 24. It was every bit as good as I’d hoped, though not quite in the same way, and I wanted to make sure I reviewed it before New Year in case it ends up on my Best Books of 2017 list. I haven’t decided the list yet…

The ‘Bob’ of Paul’s title is a book of books – that is, the list of books Paul reads, which she starts as an earnest teenager in high school. It has been filled in over 28 years, taking her up to her current life – as the editor of the New York Times Book Review, living with her husband and children in New York. And it is the thread which is drawn through this book – which is somewhere between an autobiography and a book about reading. (It’s also a lovely book – not just this fun cover, but it has deckled edges. Mmmmmm.)

I have kept a list of the books I’ve read since 2002, when I was 16. I write it in the back of each diary, and then (once the year is over) I also write them alphabetically by author in a set of notebooks designed for the purpose. Suffice to say, I’m not baffled by Paul’s desire to keep a list of her books, but apparently some people have been:

Though I’d never shown him to anyone, I’d told a few people about Bob in the past. This turned out to be a dicey proposition. Not everyone loved my Book of Books. “Tallying up books like the ticking off of accomplishments,” one boyfriend said accusingly, as if I’d admitted to quantifying parental love or indexing my inner beauty. “Hurry up, go note it in Bob,” he’d gibe every time I close a book, as if the act of recording invalidated the entire experience. Were the books truly being read for their own sake or in pursuit of some goal that sullied the entire enterprise?

“What does this tell you if you don’t remember anything about the books themselves?” another beau asked, suggesting an expanded Bob with a page for my impressions of each book in its stead. This Bigger Bob lasted for two books, the relationship not much longer. “You’re not seriously going to allow books on tape, are you?” wondered a third, scornfully. Competition, jealousy, misunderstandings, risk. Perhaps it wasn’t worth the bother.

How many of you keep lists of the books you read? I rather suspect it’s nearly all of you – because the sort of person who writes or reads a book blog isn’t likely to let that sort of information just disappear. Honestly, I’m more shocked that people recklessly finish a book and don’t make a note of it anywhere. Crazy.

I’ve read quite a lot of books about reading – it’s probably my favourite genre – but I’ve read one or two recently that only tread the surface; that either are a bit facile about how books can affect a person, or that act as though reading were their discovery entirely. Paul writes perfectly about reading. She understands that books are not an adjunct to a life, or solely an entertainment activity. The identity of ‘reader’ is all-consuming; books surround and define us, accompany and sate us, reward and disappoint us. The reading life lives parallel with our ‘real’ life, but the two overlap and inform one another – indeed, they become inseparable. And from an early age, picking books from her local library, Paul sees this.

We see Paul as a young reader, trying the classics for the first time; we see her as the child of divorce, taking advantage of her father’s willingness to buy her books (as her mother was one of those just-borrow-from-the-library types). We see her learning to understand her own literary taste – I will say that I never quite understood what Paul’s taste is, other than encompassing dark, difficult books. Perhaps she is too eclectic to have a single taste. Along the way, Bob is there to record what she reads – which, in turn, reflects her moods and activities.

Where Paul writes about reading she is, as you may have gathered, extremely relatable. In a world before Harry Potter, there was no widespread fad for pre-teen reading, and she was in the all-American world where outdoor sports and camping were considered normal fare, not reading. I loved discovering everything about her love affairs with books, even if we don’t learn all that many of the books she has delighted in over the years – each chapter is named after one, which features, and there is certainly a liberal sprinkling of titles, but it’s a small percentage of the total. What I’m saying is that I wanted a list of all of them, OK? At least as a sort of internet appendix, please-and-thank-you.

All of this was fun and fascinating, as I’d expected. What I expected less was Paul’s active life. Unlike some readers (ahem, me) who haven’t lived particularly adventurous lives, Paul read a book which persuaded her to walk an exciting path – in her case, buying a one-way ticket to Thailand. She lived in Thailand, she travelled around China. She went to France a dozen or so times. Bob went with her, and the chapters about these experiences merge the life of the reader with the life of the adventurer – and intriguing and well-told mix. It is unlike any travel account I’ve ever read, because the locus remains always literature.

And that’s before we get to the chapters about her less-than-a-year-long marriage.

Paul writes extremely well about any experience she turns to, whether that be her relationship with her father, working in a bookshop, travelling across Asia, or realising she wanted a divorce. The idea of tying it together with Bob works brilliantly, and reminded me a lot of another book I loved: Sheila Kaye-Smith’s All the Books of My Life. What a wonderful book that was (note to self: re-read). The only parts I found hard to swallow concerned Paul’s disdain for roles in marketing – where she worked on her way to being an editor – but, sadly, I have found quite a few editors who love down on marketers.

Any author who loves reading as much as I do is going to beguile and enchant me, particularly if they can write about it as brilliantly as Paul does. Throwing in her intense and interesting life just enhances this all further. It’s a great read, and I recommend it to anybody who loves books about books. And, let’s face it, that’s all of us, isn’t it?

15 thoughts on “My Life With Bob by Pamela Paul

  • December 29, 2017 at 1:31 pm
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    I keep several lists of books I’ve read. I have an alphabetical list by author on index cards. I keep a list of books read in a year. I’m a fairly new reader of your blog and love the idea of A Century of Books. I have recently started keeping a list of years with one completed book listed for each year (I don’t have all the years filled in yet), and I also have lists of books read by year for each of the last three years. And I’m on Goodreads which keeps track of the books I’ve read for the last few years. I really enjoy your blog!

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  • December 29, 2017 at 1:57 pm
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    I am not sure why I hadn’t kept a list of all the books I had read until 2001 when a friend mentioned that she did it. A couple years later I added genre and whether it was from the library or something I already owned (one year when I knew I would be moving in August I only allowed myself to read books I owned because I was hoping some would turn into discards after I’d read them). I am still trying to read more of the unread books I own. My sisters says if I wanted to read them, I would do so the day I bought or acquired them but sometimes I just don’t get around to it. Or, once when I received a new Sharon Kay Penman, I remembered how upset I had been when Simon de Montford died in her previous book and I couldn’t bring myself to start the next in the series…

    I am curious about Paul’s book and am glad to know Bob isn’t some boring spouse! I know she is a big fan of Betsy-Tacy, a series that really changed my life because of finding an avid internet group nearly 25 years ago. Not that we got Paul to join but she’s a fan anyway: https://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/08/a-new-edition-of-betsy-tacy-greets-fans-old-and-new/

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  • December 29, 2017 at 2:39 pm
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    I don’t keep a written list anymore but because of my blog and Goodreads I don’t need to. The information I require is always there. Recently I read Love’s Shadow by Ada Leverson, writing in my review I have never read Ada Leverson before. When a commenter mentioned another of her novels I looked it up on Goodreads only to discover I had read it five years ago. That’s why recording these things is so useful.
    This book sounds marvellous, great Christmas gift.

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  • December 29, 2017 at 4:15 pm
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    Thank you, Simon, for describing so well the relationship between a reader and his/her books. It is more than entertainment for me, though it is that. I learn, I understand, I see through books. I keep a record of books I read in a desk calendar. If I start a book on, say, Aug. 8, I write the title down on the Aug. 8 page of the calendar. The calendar stores many years of reading, so on Aug. 8, I might have entries for 2013, 2016 and 2017. I enjoy paging through at the end of the year to remind myself what I read. And when I enter the book I start on Aug. 8, I enjoy looking back at the previous years to see what I was reading then.

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  • December 29, 2017 at 5:56 pm
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    I tried this as an e-book and though the content was intriguing the format was just not right for a book about books! Looking forward to reading it with a proper copy in hand.

    As for my own BOB, it’s the expanded version with notes on and favourites quotes from all the books I read. I kept it religiously from 2006 to 2015 and then fell off for a year and half but I’m back at it now.

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  • December 29, 2017 at 7:55 pm
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    “The identity of ‘reader’ is all-consuming; books surround and define us, accompany and sate us, reward and disappoint us. The reading life lives parallel with our ‘real’ life, but the two overlap and inform one another – indeed, they become inseparable.”

    That’s a perfect summing-up of a reader (or at least the one I am!) Thank you, Simon! :)

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  • December 30, 2017 at 1:46 am
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    For some time now, I take a photo of the book cover and keep that as my reading history. How terribly tech of me, say my children.

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  • December 30, 2017 at 4:25 am
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    So glad to hear someone else enjoyed this one as much as I did! Paul is close to my age so it was interesting to see where our reading lives overlapped (although, I’ve never been the adventurer that she is!). I’ve got my current “B.O.B” that goes back to June of 1989, but oh the gnashing of teeth that I’ve done over the fact that I don’t have my earlier records! I always kept book lists, but I have no clue what happened to my early records – no doubt they were swept away in some great clean-out years ago. (That gives whole new meaning to the “life-changing” magic of tidying up! ;) ).

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  • December 30, 2017 at 6:13 pm
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    Great review Simon! I was turned on to this by Bookish Beck and loved it. I have a specific notebook where I keep my books read that goes back as far as 2000. I have a terrible memory when it comes to books read and would sometimes buy books I’d already read before I started writing them down. Goodreads is great for keeping track but there is nothing like having it handwritten for me.

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  • December 31, 2017 at 6:48 pm
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    I started recording books I’d read in 2011, on the computer, where it is easy to check and sort authors, titles, etc. I wish I’d kept a log earlier, as there are books I know I’d like to re-read, but cannot remember either the title or author!

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  • January 2, 2018 at 10:33 pm
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    This was quite enjoyable indeed. I appreciated the variety of books she included, although I wished she had included more images of the actual list (likely this was a decision made by those marketing types *grins*). Another book about books I love is Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris. I can see our reference library as a copy of the Kaye-Smith volume; I’ll have to take a peek next time I take that trip. Thanks for the rec!

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  • January 4, 2018 at 9:48 am
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    This is very high on my wishlist even though I have ALL THE BOOKS on the TBR at the moment.

    I have kept a reading journal since 1997 and still keep that as well as my blog. I then used to add that to index cards by author, but when that got to four boxes, I started to do a spreadsheet. I have a box of reading journals to add to that still, but there’s never time. Maybe I should do some hours a week all year until that’s filled in. I love seeing when I read and re-read and re-read a book!

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  • January 16, 2018 at 6:24 pm
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    I hadn’t heard about this but it looks fantastic!

    By the way, you don’t do too badly yourself at expressing that unique relationship we readers have with our books. I loved this paragraph:
    “She understands that books are not an adjunct to a life, or solely an entertainment activity. The identity of ‘reader’ is all-consuming; books surround and define us, accompany and sate us, reward and disappoint us. The reading life lives parallel with our ‘real’ life, but the two overlap and inform one another – indeed, they become inseparable.”
    Just lovely.

    Reply

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