Pamela Paul, editor of The New York Times Book Review, has a new, widely praised book out this month, My Life With Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues. The “Bob” of the title is her book journal, which she began in adolescence. “If there’s any book that tells me my own story, it’s this one,” she writes.
Recently, Paul and Anthony Doerr discussed My Life with Bob by email. Doerr is the author of All the Light We Cannot See, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer prize for literature. Paul’s publisher, Henry Holt, offered their conversation exclusively to the Amazon Book Review.
Anthony Doerr: Congratulations on a delightful, warm, and totally unpretentious book about books. I was charmed all over the place, from the days you sneaked peeks at Sweet Dreams romances at your childhood public library, to reading Anna Karenina in Thailand, to your postpartum plunge into The Hunger Games.
In some ways, your memoir is really a very moving narrative about overcoming fear: the fear of being socially awkward as a young person, the fear of admitting in college English you didn’t appreciate The Faerie Queen, the fear of announcing to yourself—and to the world—that you wanted to be a writer. What do you say to young people who love books but who fear they won’t be able to make a living reading and writing?
Pamela Paul: It’s an entirely reasonable fear because reading and writing are difficult ways to make a living, perhaps—at least in financial terms—now more so than ever. But the advantage today is that the barrier to entry is much lower. When I was starting out, you had to snail-mail a letter to an editor or agent and hope that someone even opened the envelope. Today, there are many more places to write online than there ever were in print, and if someone else won’t publish you, you can publish yourself on a blog, on social media, etc.—and find readers.
The other thing I would say is not to give up hope. I toiled away at a random assortment of media jobs for years before anyone paid me to write, and then did so only at night as a sideline because it wasn’t enough to make a living. I was almost ten years out of college before I became a full-time writer. If reading and writing are what you really want to do, then you will put up with the wait and be all the more grateful once you get your first break. Lastly, the more you read, the better you write—so that part’s easy.
My Life with Bob is routinely hilarious. Your attempt to translate The Grapes of Wrath to your French hosts as The Plums of Fury made me laugh out loud, and your take on scuba diving was downright hysterical. You mention cracking up at Catch-22 as a young reader: How do you think reading helped you develop your sense of humor?
The only thing I enjoy more than laughing out loud over a book is crying over a book, both among life’s greatest pleasures. But laughing at books is harder for me because my humor tends toward the slapstick, and apart from a few great literary slapstick scenes—the one in which Slaughterhouse Five’s Billy Pilgrim drunkenly searches for the steering wheel in the backseat of the car comes to mind—humor in books tends to be subtler. It’s harder. That said, I love the funny. I re-read all of David Sedaris while I was working on the book and dipped in and out of Judd Apatow’s Sick in the Head, and books by essayists like Jessi Klein and Michael Ian Black who make me laugh. I had one advantage with this book in that I was writing about my own life, and I routinely find myself inadvertently amusing. Making fun of myself in words is somehow less mortifying that giggling helplessly when I trip walking down the street.
Read a Free Preview
I was so moved by your account of your late father taking you and your brothers to Barnes & Noble on “Divorced Dad Thursdays” and saying, “I don’t want to have to say no to you when it comes to buying books.” And I love that you repeated that gesture by letting your children buy the books they wanted. As a dad who just bought his seventh-grade twins a couple of copies of Stephen King’s It, I wonder: Do you let your kids choose whatever books they want, even ones you worry aren’t quite “age appropriate”?
I love that you did that! And I generally believe in allowing kids to read upward. When my daughter was eleven, she brought over a book and pointed to the word “heroin” and asked, “What does this mean?” I try to remind myself that I would rather my kids encounter a difficult issue for the first time in a book, which has been edited and shaped and is contextualized, than on a random website or through idle chatter with peers. And even if a book goes over a child’s head, the challenge can excite and motivate him. To ask questions, to re-read, to discuss. I think sometimes we inadvertently position books to kids as something formidable and inaccessible rather than something challenging and eye opening. I’ve been guilty of this myself in the past—when my children were really small, I would occasionally pre-read a book for them and think to myself, “Well, they won’t understand this because they’ve never been to Vietnam,” without realizing, “That’s exactly why they should read it.”
At the same time, I let kids read stuff that some people might consider “beneath them”—comic books and manga and novels that are several years below their level and full of bathroom humor. I think kids should feel in charge of their own reading and indulge in all the ways that books can fulfill them.
The number of new books that cross my desk can get daunting, so I can only imagine the mountains of advance copies that must invade your every hour. Can you still make time to put old books into Bob? Do you think Ulysses will ever make it in there?
I’m going to just admit that I will probably never read Ulysses. Not because I don’t want to read old books—I read Emile Zola’s The Belly of Paris last month—but because there are too many other great nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century novels I want to read more. I’ve barely touched late Dickens. I haven’t read all of Dostoevsky. And of the modernists, I’d much rather read Faulkner or Conrad. Just writing this makes me feel woefully behind. Let’s move on!
Even though your job might seem like paradise to some (you get paid to read!), does evaluating books all day at work—having to, as you put it, “view books as something to be sifted and sorted”—ever rob you of some of the private, personal joy of your great passion?
I refuse to let it. Books to me are still my great pleasure. I love movies and theater and good TV, too, but I don’t need those things on a daily basis. Books, I do. I can’t go to bed without reading even just a few pages. So I actively protect my pleasure reading time and keep my work reading time to a minimum. Fortunately, I am able to do this in my position, which does not, for the most part, involve directly evaluating books for review. (My extremely talented staff does that and are much better at it, for which I am eternally grateful.)
I believe—fervently—that reading and writing stories is not, despite appearances, about spending a lot of time by yourself. It’s about learning to be able to look beyond the self, beyond the ego, to enter other lives and other worlds. Still, particularly as a parent, I sometimes feel selfish when I make time to read; I feel as though I should be doing more stuff around the house, more stuff with or for the kids. Do you ever feel that way?
I don’t because I read with my kids—not to them so much, anymore—but alongside them. I think of it as parallel play for big kids. At night, after dinner, we each read our books side by side, and occasionally interrupt each other to share funny passages or interesting facts. It’s basically the dork version of eating TV dinners together. Perhaps it’s selfish of me, but at the same time, I like to think of it as a kind of modeling—that rather than sitting with them and scrolling on my iPhone, which I do plenty of when I’m not with them—I am showing them how to unplug and transport yourself at the end of the day. And then to let them open up themselves to those other lives and other worlds.
Okay, last one: I love that Bob inspired your husband to keep a “Blob” (Big List of Books). Do you know if Bob has inspired more readers to make lifelong catalogs of their own reading histories?
Yes, a number of people have written to tell me so! When I first wrote about Bob in The New York Times Book Review in 2012, I got some wonderful emails and handwritten letters, often with photocopied images of pages from their own Bobs. I feel like I’d discovered this secret society of book-trackers. And I think there are more of us than I suspected—it’s just that today people keep their lists on Goodreads or their phones. Even my precious Bob has been scanned into the cloud and now also exists in parallel PDF form. (I feel a little guilty admitting that.)
Photo credit: Earl Wilson