Readers who know Pamela Paul’s books before she became the editor of the New York Times Book Review know that they are serious works of nonfiction: The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony (2002), Pornified: How Pornography Is Damaging Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families (2005), and Parenting, Inc.: How the Billion-Dollar Baby Business Has Changed the Way We Raise Our Children (2008). Her new book, a memoir, is titled My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues. “The goal with my other books was to make a case, to marshal the evidence,” Paul says. “And that’s challenging and interesting, but it’s not particularly fun. And writing this book was really fun. I don’t know that it’s fun to read an investigation of the parenting industry, but at the very least, I hope this is a fun book to read.”
My Life with Bob is fun to read. In 1988, when she was a teenager, Paul began making notes in a notebook she called Bob (or, Book of Books) to catalog when she read which books. She was honest with herself: the “inc.” notation stands for “incomplete” for failing to finish certain books. Each chapter of My Life with Bob is titled after a certain book, and the subtitle suggests an insight readers will recognize; the chapter about the Norton Anthology of English Literature is subtitled “Required Reading,” for example (those of us who have tortured ourselves with the conviction that all serious book readers have read every last page of the Norton Anthology of English Literature will treasure that particular chapter). This is also the chapter in which Paul confesses her inability to understand poetry at an age when she thought serious literary credibility necessitated a deep appreciation for poetry. And it’s also the chapter in which she writes that “it wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I understood it was okay and even right to read what you wanted rather than what you ought.”
There are chapters on inspirational reading (Wild Swans), reading with children (A Wrinkle in Time), heroines (Anna Karenina), and not having time to read (The Hunger Games). Paul originally planned to write 64 chapters (the book now has 22). There are plenty of books she wanted to include that didn’t make the final cut. Gogol’s Dead Souls was going to headline a chapter about a “terrible job working on a wine vineyard in the South of France,” and the Brothers Karamazov was going to be the subject of a chapter about traveling in the Philippines when she thought she was contracting dengue fever. “I had about five chapters on Thailand, and my editor finally said, ‘This isn’t a book about Thailand,’ ” Paul recalls. So Moby-Dick, which she read while on an island in the south of Thailand, had to go. Paul didn’t have to make a strong argument in My Life with Bob like she did in her previous books, but there’s a deep point nonetheless: “I’m not trying to make any case, other than that what we read informs and expands on our own lives,” Paul says. “And that’s something I think most readers will recognize as being true in their own lives.”
Claiborne Smith is the editor-in-chief.