Thursday, June 29, 2017

"My Life with Bob," by Pamela Paul

When I heard that Pamela Paul, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, had a new book out about her years of keeping a list of all the books she had read, I was excited. This is something I have done since I was ten years old. This was one of the first topics I wrote about when I started this blog (see my post of 11/24/10, one of three posts I wrote that day; I was eager to get blogging!). A day after that first post, I posted the first 50 and the 50 most recent titles on that list, to give a flavor of my early reading and my current reading. I have always treasured my book list, kept in plain notebooks; I am now on volume 4. Like Pamela Paul, I enter the author’s name and title for each book. She writes the dates by months; I write the date that I begin each new page in the notebook. I also number each book, which she does not, although she says in the book that she wishes she had. I sometimes add the genre of the book (but the default is fiction), or a note if I listened to the book on tape or CD, or, if it is a second or third read, a note to that effect. I have thought of more elaborate notations, perhaps dates of publication, a word or two of evaluation, etc., but decided to keep it simple. Pamela Paul’s book is titled “My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues” (Henry Holt, 2017). So it is a book about a "book book," if I may put it that way. “Bob” is an abbreviation of “Book of Books”; I never thought of giving my list a name. I wonder if it is too late now? I will have to ponder that. Paul started her list a little later than I did – in high school. She has now kept the list for 28 years; I have kept mine for quite a few years more, but I am too vain to tell you the exact number! She treasures Bob, and in this book, tells the story of the list as it illustrates not only her love of books, but also how books have been part of every facet of her life. This is a memoir centered around Paul’s life in books. She says that “Each entry conjures a memory that may have otherwise gotten lost or blurred with time” (p. 4), and I generally have had the same experience, except that I freely admit that there are some books listed that I can’t remember at all. I will use as my excuse the above-mentioned greater length of time I have been keeping a list, along with the greater number of books I read per year than she does, according to her own count (not that this is a competition!). She, like me, notes every book, whether it be a children’s book, great novel, bestseller, beach read, or any other type of book, and I think for both of us this is an important reminder of the breadth of our reading, and of our enjoyment of different genres at different times. We don’t censor by leaving out books we think might not reflect well on us, or might not be “worthy” of being on the list. Of course I noticed, as I read her opinions and explanations about many of the books she read, that -- as might be expected -- we sometimes agreed about certain books and sometimes disagreed. Paul writes about why she read certain books at certain times in her life, and how they connected to her feelings during high school, college, her travels, her various jobs, her career as a writer and editor, her relationships, her family life, and her being a mother. I admire how she weaves together stories of her reading and her life; we all know these are related, but we cannot all explain the connections as well as this author does. She concludes her book with the following words: “When I look through Bob, the actual stories between his mottled covers may have been written by others, but they belong to me now. Nobody else on the planet has read this particular series of books in this exact order and been affected in precisely this way” (p. 240). Agreed!
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