Our book today is a treat for readers (you can tell by the cascade of poorly-drawn books on the front cover, I guess): My Life with Bob, subtitled “Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues,” and it’s written by the most powerful person in the world of books, Pamela Paul, the editor of the New York Times Book Review and the person who dictates all the books coverage for the Paper of Record. And as that subtitle indicates, the “Bob” in the title isn’t a person – it’s Paul’s “book of books,” the painstaking record she’s kept for decades of every book she’s ever read.
It’s an accumulation that’s in some ways more immediately satisfying, she points out, than a normal personal journal would be; “diaries contained all kinds of things I wanted to forget – unrequited crushes and falling-outs with friends and angsting over college admissions,” she writes. “Bob contains things I wanted to remember: what I was reading when all that happened.”
Paul has written about Bob before, but this kind of subject is almost by its very nature inexhaustible, particularly for somebody like Paul, who’s “engulfed” in books. And of course every reader is always pruriently curious about the books that make up every other reader’s life. But the real strength of My Life with Bob, the element that gives it such a strong, easy readability in its own right, consistently isn’t the copious book-talk that fills its pages – the “Bob” part. Rather, it’s the “life” part where Paul’s considerable storytelling gifts shine to best advantage. She might protest that diaries remember things she wants to forget, but it’s pretty clear from the stories here that she hasn’t forgotten much.
This is a chronicle of failed and sometimes mortifying relationships in her dating – and marrying – life, a chronicle of constantly trying to gain some purchase on other people, some quick and reliable understanding of them, from the books they read and the books they want other people to read. That communicative aspect of reading Paul understands well from feeling it herself many times:
Sometimes you fall so much in love with a book that you simply have to tell everyone, to spread the love and to explain the state you’re in. You read passages aloud to anyone who will listen. You wait with bated breath, watching for signs of appreciation, wanting that smile, that laugh, that nod of recognition. Please love this book too, you silently – and sometimes not so silently – urge. You become insistent, even messianic in your enthusiasm.
Her own messianism has met with uneven results over the years. She recounts stories of uncomprehending boyfriends (one of them watched her finish a book and snidely said, “Hurry up, go note it in Bob”), stories of trying to align her reading with her former husband’s (they split on Magic Mountain and Paul Johnson’s Modern Times), stories of re-entering the dating life and encountering men whose favorites betray some fundamental flaw in their nature, such as the “ridiculously handsome” Abe, whose love of George MacDonald Fraser’s “Flashman” books prompts her to savor the highly idiosyncratic joy of “hate-reading” a book:
There can certainly be a pleasure in hate reading. As with The Fountainhead, I have hated my way through several books to the last page, not always out of generosity to the writer. It’s a force of will. You will be read no matter how hard you make it. Some say reading hateful books feels like time wasted – and with so little time, so many books, why bother with the bad? But there’s something bracing about reading a book you despise, because loathing is usually mixed with other emotions – fear, perverse attraction, even occasional, complicated strains of sympathy. It’s one of many reasons I believe in negative reviews. It can be interesting when a book provokes animosity. But hate in and of itself is not a very interesting response to a book, and oh, how I hated Flashman.
My Life with Bob is generously stocked with bookish anecdotes like this, with favorite books of mine found wanting (I side firmly with the ridiculously handsome Abe on the merits of Flashman) and titles I consider ridiculous fluff sometimes granted serious consideration because they answered a particular need at a particular time – and all kinds of books in between. And Paul so skillfully braids her book-talk with her life-talk (I got the strong impression that most of her life-stories have been honed to perfection by frequent retelling) that The Book of Bob always and invitingly doubles as The Book of Pam. It’s hard to think of a more intuitive – or more honest – way to go about describing a life lived in books.
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