A Life of Books

By Julia M. Klein / July/August 2017
June 30th, 2017

During her junior year of high school, Pamela Paul ’93, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, began making note of every book she read—and never stopped. The result, a “Book of Books” that she nicknamed “Bob,” serves as the scaffolding and inspiration for My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues. It’s a memoir replete with travel adventures, turbulent romances, and insight into Paul’s literary loves and influences. She has written three other books—The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony (2002), Pornified (2005), and Parenting, Inc. (2008)—and edited By the Book (2014) a collection of her author interviews for the Times

What provoked you to turn your 2012 Times essay (“My Life with Bob”) into a full-fledged memoir?
Lara Tomlin/The New York Times Insider
The essay got a huge response—it was really heartwarming. The responses boiled down to two categories: One was, “I keep a Bob, too.” And it felt like this great sense of connection. And then a lot of people said, “I wish I had kept a Bob.” I thought I was this anomaly, and it turns out that I’m not. 

What was the toughest writing challenge involved? 
The first challenge was writing about myself. And the other was to write a book that was kind of about books, but where you didn’t have to have read any of the books. This is not a book of literary criticism. This book is about the area between the reader and the book—what that relationship is like and how books affect us, how they inspire us, or inform our lives, or change our lives.

In writing about your first marriage, you note that one danger signal was that you and your husband read books in different ways—you for challenge, he for confirmation. 
That chapter is a metaphor for a relationship—which is that a couple never exists in total isolation, and the real world still exists around them. And the idea of disagreeing about what you’ve read is really about having very different views of the world.

Can you give other examples of how your reading choices have interacted with your life choices over the years?
The most dramatic one was probably when I was at Brown my senior year. I was, like many Brown graduates, trying to figure out what to do with my life. I had run through a few possibilities. What happened was that I read a book called A Journey of One’s Own by Thalia Zepatos. That book was about traveling as an independent woman. I just abruptly walked out of an interview that I was doing with Quaker Oats and bought a one-way ticket to Thailand. That book really actually did change my life. 

How has having reading be your work changed your relationship to books?
Pamela Paul's original "Book of Books"-a record of every book she's read since high school.
The one thing that I have tried to maintain in my work is the ability to continue to read for pleasure. When I get home, reading is for me. It does mean that I don’t get to watch a lot of movies, and I barely get to see TV. It requires certain sacrifices. 

Do you still think of books as “a safe way to go off the rails?”
Not in the same way as when I was younger, but for me books are a way to inhabit a world that I wouldn’t have otherwise had access to. It’s about being able to experience what it was like growing up African American in Brooklyn in the ’70s, or what it’s like to be an immigrant. That’s what I get from reading—being able to live a teeny, teeny sliver of those lifetimes.

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Related Issue
July/August 2017