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?