I once knew a Holocaust survivor, a Russian non-native English speaker with a thirst for learning, who kept a wonderful book: a logbook of obsessive reading with highly particular summaries. “War and Peace,” the survivor notated, “a bunch of people, war, and countries — can’t anyone get along?” “Madame Bovary,” she wrote, “a fancy lady spends a lot of time dreaming until all is lost for love.”
We are deep into a moment in which authors write of lives, often their own, through the habit of reading. Hearing of the trend from afar, a person could ask: does the practice signify a retreat to a self-reflexive cave? A recherché activity, a hall-of-mirrors exercise, a willed innocence? And yet, these last 15 years, books on reading have proliferated at the same time that newspaper space for discussing the magic of reading has shrunk. Consider Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book, a hundred others.
Such authors share the same gleam you find in the self-portrait of Diego Velázquez in “Las Meninas” in which the artist depicts himself as the aware but lowly court servant painting the aristocratic family. The artist supersedes his content, eyes leaping out of the frame at us, becoming our proxy for understanding a given milieu. With similar esprit, in many of these books, the authors gaze back at us reading them, showing how at a crucial point in life, a book or series swayed them unalterably. Reader, I was never the same, these books whisper, confidingly. The earth moved. These books on reading often also move earth, however subtly, achieving what Aristotle demanded for drama: both recognition and catharsis.
In Pamela Paul’s fifth book, My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, she takes us traveling through a landscape of childhood aspiration and adolescently blind romanticism, the accruals and loss of adulthood, all told from a temperament with a fierce, passionate allegiance to principle. Her Bob is a logbook of reading and also a rueful, joyful autobiography of interests and selves, an elegy fond and bittersweet. Bob in its physical form — even when a mate, soon to be ex, actually writes in it himself — survives courtships, marriages, and the most Aristotelian of reversals.
On first reading, I felt the book created a new genre, the polemic picaresque, in which readers get to wander happily with a Michel de Montaigne-like narrator through varied realms while picking up bits of advice as buried treasure. Imagine a guide who seems at first to speak only of her small village and family while showing the reader a local tower, who meanwhile, subtly, persuades us of the greatness of the parish. On my second reading, Paul’s book seemed to be in conversation with Boswell’s travels with Johnson, Sei Shōnagon, or The Canterbury Tales, in which we roam aesthetic terrain with a hapless and memorable group of individuals, the world rich with surfaces while belying the deeper moral conviction and instruction to be had.
The journey is as good as the guide, and one of My Life with Bob’s pleasures is the humorous and affectionate light cast on the narrator’s strong convictions. As a young girl, Paul begins with reading as a quirky hagiography, finding lives to learn and emulate, the horizon of her worldliness as wide as her last book read. Older, she shows great, impulsive agency in making book-inspired choices while becoming increasingly nostalgic for an earlier temporal freedom, leaving her reader to understand that a life too far from books is not just unexamined, but unfelt, unknown, unarticulated.
From the joy-filled vantage of someone illuminated, and even dominated, by books she has read, Paul inspires her reader to revisit works canonical and unsung. As the best memoir writers do, the witty persona Paul creates for her narrator is not so much heroine but more in the spirit of Paul Klee’s “Hero with a Broken Wing”: gifted and burdened by aspiration, she lives the paradox of being the obedient rebel and contrarian student who delights in having a mind with a thousand pockets. If August Wilson says everyone should wake to see the face of our own god in the mirror, in this case, for a very singular reader, the mirror itself is literature.
Below, Paul speaks of seeing her recollection of Bob emerge.
The Millions: You were a reader with a great understanding of privacy. What is your experience of My Life with Bob, an exegesis of such an important relic of the self, traveling out in the world?
Pamela Paul: A certain amount of trepidation. I never thought I would write a memoir, and in fact, didn’t think of this book as a memoir until Publishers Weekly announced the deal and called it one. My first thought was, “Oh, no — but they’re right! I guess it is a memoir.”
To my mind, it was to be a book about books, a book about travels, a book about storytelling. But of course, it’s not really about those things. It’s about the intersection of books and life, and about how what we read infiltrates, influences, reflects, expands on, and colors everything else. When we read, even when the book is temporarily put down with a bookmark firmly in place, the stories from inside the book don’t entirely recede from our consciousness. They become part of us. My stories are part of me, and therefore a lot more “me” had to be in this book that I am used to putting. My previous books were all journalistic investigations that had one or two first-person sentences in the introductions before firmly leaving that voice behind. This book is not only about me — it’s about (I hope) all readers and the way all of us experience stories. But it’s obviously quite personal.
TM: What are you reading — or hoping to read — now?
PP: I choose my books on a gut level, to match a strong mood or an urge or even a need. But it’s not a one-step or simple process. That’s one of the reasons I ask what books people have on their nightstand in my By the Book interviews: I’m curious about how people narrow down and make their choices among all the possibilities. Personally, I keep a large pile on my nightstand — on the wide edge of my platform bed, actually — and then a few other piles across from the bed on a room-length wall of built-in bookshelves. Like all readers, I have so many books that I’d like to read, that I intend to read, that I feel I must read, but I never truly know what I’ll read next until the moment I finish the previous book.
This doesn’t mean I don’t plan. I do all kinds of planning! And then I cast those plans aside. Right now, for example, I was planning to be reading Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena because the reviews were strong and so many people I respect have recommended it. The glowing praise for his follow-up collection of short stories pushed that book further to the top of the list. So it was on my shortlist. Then I did something I’ve never done before: I enlisted my two older children to help me decide between reading the Marra, Émile Zola’s The Belly of Paris or Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop next. I read the back covers and inside jackets aloud to them. My daughter voted for Marra and my son for Zola. I read the Zola first, and so had turned to the Marra next to be fair. But a few chapters in, I found that it wasn’t quite matching my mood. This isn’t to say I didn’t like it — thus far, I like it very much and I plan to go back to it. But it just wasn’t what I needed at the moment.
What I needed, I realized, and this is what had drawn me to all three of those books, was a book that was engrossing and serious and relevant to my life right now, but also an escape. And that was accompanied by an urge to read about an earlier era in journalism. Scoop wasn’t quite the right book because I didn’t want humor (I’ve kind of been adverse to comedy, overall, since the fall — read into that what you will, though I hope it means I haven’t permanently lost my sense of humor). “Scoop will be read one day…I do love Waugh.
Then, on a shelf I keep devoted to books about writing and about journalism, I noticed Ben Bradlee’s memoir, A Good Life: Newspaper and Other Adventures. I’ve been wanting to read this book since it was published, which to my embarrassment was in 1995, therefore making it a book I’ve meant to read for 22 years now. I adored Katharine Graham’s Personal History, which I’d read as soon as it came out. I picked up the Bradlee and it fits every need I have at this moment: Serious, yet also entertaining. Relevant to my life (journalism), yet also a departure (journalism back when it was strictly about print). Plus, Bradlee is a terrific narrator. You can hear his distinctive voice, his infectious personality. And the part I’m up to now is very much a different world: His experiences in the Navy in World War II, his early days at a startup weekly newspaper in New Hampshire, his experience as a press attaché in Paris. I’m just now getting back to Washington and his Newsweek years. It’s a delight on every level.
Do other readers go through a version of this elaborate mood-matching process when considering what to read next? I suspect many do. To me, it’s one of the great decisions we get to make in life, and we get to make it again and again: What to Read Next.
TM: What is the relation of risk to your practice of writing? And what was your process in sequencing and editing this book, and did it differ from your others?
PP: This book was completely different from any other book I’ve written. My previous books were essentially argument books: journalistic investigations that set out to explore a subject through research and reporting, marshal the evidence, and make a case. My first book, The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony, came out of personal experience — an early marriage and divorce — but I quite adamantly didn’t want the book to be about me, so after the first paragraph, the first person dropped out. That book still felt personal. I discovered and learned through other people’s answers and lessons that I was seeking to help make sense of my own experience. What did these other young divorced people know that I didn’t yet know myself? What had they learned two or five years after their marriages ended that they didn’t know at the point of rupture? The next two books came out of reported stories that I wrote for Time magazine and expanded on issues around consumer culture that I thought worth further exploration. For all of those books, the driving goal was to prove a point.
By contrast, I had nothing to prove with this book. I am not trying to persuade anyone of anything. So the underlying motivation is altogether different, and that fundamentally changes the writing process. This book isn’t probably not going to change anyone’s mind about anything (except perhaps about the wisdom of writing down what you read). So it has to want to be read for other reasons.
If I had a driving sense of purpose with this book in terms of its relationship to readers, it was to write something that was a pleasure to read. Because I get so much pleasure from books, and from my Book of Books. When people have told me they’ve read my previous books, my knee-jerk response has always been, “I’m sorry.” That may sound ridiculous and self-defeating, but I don’t think my earlier books were particularly fun to read. Enlightening, in certain ways, perhaps. But not enjoyable. I wanted to write a book that might be an actual enjoyable reading experience. And that made the book an actual pleasure to write — even when I was writing about embarrassing or frightening or upsetting experiences, like the end of my first marriage or my father’s death.
But I like that you compare it to a journey because that’s how it feels to me. Like a journey through life with books as constant companion. With little discoveries made, both within and outside of books, along the way.
TM: Having also encountered Thalia Zepatos’s book of advice for the independent woman traveler at a young age, to my detriment or advantage, I was nonetheless happy to see her mentioned. Yet what makes your suitcase so singular is the manner in which your narrator, like a lover or devotee, brings books as an offering to beautiful environments, most notably in an outdoor scene in China. Similarly, a landscape can be ruined for your narrator by the errancy of the particular author you happen to be reading, your mind infected by a particular voice. Books similarly permeate the courtships with men you end up marrying. In such moments, you do a great deal to erase the binary of life versus art, the dichotomy that Cynthia Ozick felt she misunderstood as a dictum from Henry James: “Life! Life, not art!” Was there something not mentioned in your book, whether in early environ or temperament, that may have led to this happy erasure, a habit of convergence? The curiosity the reader has — having traveled with you through travel, jobs, marriages, divorces, children — is whether your narrator would say her highest self, her best part, was formed by reading rather than life?
PP: For me, reading Thalia Zepatos was inspiring in the most concrete sense of the word: It inspired me to something I didn’t feel capable of or well-suited for. I read her book and then did something that was highly unlikely given the cautious, ambitious, responsible, fearful person I was at that time. I threw aside all my life and career goals and set out to do something that I knew I might hate. Something that terrified me. Something that nobody like me would do. As I put it in the book, it was as if 5 percent of me made a decision and dragged along the other 95 percent. It ended up being the best decision I’ve ever made.
TM: Your narrator is similarly remarkable in the complexity of being a success-driven rebel: she is both the child who early on learns not to procrastinate, getting her work done first so she can with easier mind enjoy the poking of her pencil into the carpet, and the principle-driven rebel. Within aspirational milieus, in equal measure, she passionately protests and excels within received dictates. One of the abiding sub rosa questions in the book has to do with the quirkiness of free will and self-determination against given legacies: your narrator finds herself shooting out of a particular set of birthright assumptions. How does this complexity inform your relation to your life in writing and reading these days?
PP: I just wrote a piece adapted from the book called “The Joy of Hate Reading” in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times that describes one of the key ways I’ve come to read and write, which is to challenge myself through words. It’s a way to remind myself of how little I actually know. As a writer, with this book, I set out to write the kind of book I never thought I’d write — a memoir. And as a reader, I am always pushing myself to try out books I don’t think I’ll enjoy. I have a kind of perverse urge to constantly test my own assumptions. To a certain extent this has always been there. I was a supremely unathletic child, always picked second-to-last for sports teams in elementary school (an excruciating experience that I wrote about in my college application essay). But when I got to college, I ended up joining the rugby team. It was an entirely absurd decision to make — I have never once hit a ball with a baseball bat in my life. But I joined the rugby team and I loved it. I still have near-zero interest in sports, but I recently read The Throwback Special because it’s about football. (I loved that too.)
TM: “Without imagination of another’s mind there can be no understanding of that other and hence no love,” Sherwin Nuland writes in relation to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry,” a quotation you cite in your book when talking of a first love. How would you relate BOB to that very same imagination?
PP: Reading is ultimately about empathy — about experiencing another person’s story, his version of events, his voice, his way of viewing the world. To me one of the beauties of literature is that two different people from very different worlds can read the same book, and share that experience, even as if in different variations. You can have a 16-year-old girl in India read The Underground Railroad and a 45-year-old stay-at-home mother in Indiana read that same book. They will read it in different ways, but also, in similar ways, sharing a version of the characters’ experience, both with each other, and with the author. That’s connection.
TM: Everyone who has ever worked in publishing or known anyone with a foot near the industry knows something about towering piles of books that have arrived over the transom. Does your delighted, curatorial rapture about books remain intact or has it shifted emphasis? You speak movingly about your almost physical pain as, in an early bookstore job, you had to tear covers off books to be remaindered. Has the status of books as beloved fetish objects begun to alter or have you become just more focused in your pursuit?
PP: I feel like I live in a castle of riches at The New York Times Book Review. Not a day goes by when I don’t feel giddy by the unopened cartons of books awaiting me, eager to see the contents inside, excited by the galleys on the shelves and delighted and slightly stunned that I get to take finished copies home with me. Books to me are still treasures. I’m still greedy and I’m extremely grateful. I am not nearly as focused in my acquisitiveness as I should be and have towering shelves of books at home to attest to that weakness.
Image Credit: Marcia Ciriello.