'My Life with Bob' is a rollicking, intimate journey to a booklover's heart
New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul's memoir invites us to share a close-up look at the books of her life.
Besides being a widely published journalist and the author of four previous books ("By the Book," "Parenting, Inc.," "Pornified," and "The Starter Marriage"), Pamela Paul is the overseer of books coverage for The New York Times, and the editor of The New York Times Book Review – only the second woman to helm the venerable publication since its inception in 1896. Paul’s appointment was one effective byproduct of the contentious, continuing campaign for gender parity in American literary criticism. In 2012, the year before Paul became its editor, the NYTBR covered 488 books by male authors and 237 by women. In 2014, female representation in the NYTBR increased to 47 percent.
Why, you might ask, is Paul’s backstory relevant to the review at hand? For one thing, it means that My Life with Bob (“Bob” is Paul’s acronym for “Book of Books,” described as “A journal that records every book she’s ever read”) is a book about books by one of the nation’s arbiters-in-chief of books. Two, it highlights the reviewer’s dilemma. For any book critic (including this one) who also writes books, and is therefore loath to curry disfavor with perhaps the world’s most powerful book critic, panning Pamela Paul would be quite the unwise career move.
Fortunately for this reviewer, and for Paul’s readers-to-be, "My Life with Bob" is greater than the sum of its parts: a rollicking, intimate expedition through a brilliant booklover’s heart, mind, and life. “Over the years,” Paul writes, “Bob has become an even more personal record than a diary would have been, not about my quotidian existence but about what lay at its foundations – what drove my interests and shaped my ideas.... If there’s any book that tells my own story, it’s this one.” Explaining why she started recording her readings at age 17, she writes, “In this Book of Books, I’d be able to take charge of my own story and make it better.”
Through the lens of the books she’s read in the past 30 years, Paul explores various phases of a life literarily, and neurotically, lived. She was a lonely, nerdy child. “Bringing a book of your own to school was a no-no, and not to recess either, where you were supposed to be getting balls thrown at your head.” During and after college, she became an adventurous traveler, accompanied only by the books she packed or scrounged. “Books stand out in particularly high relief when you’re traveling or otherwise displaced because during those moments of displacement they also provide a kind of mooring,” Paul writes. “It’s why our memories of what we read when we travel so often stick with us well after details of the trip itself fade.”
After one year of marriage to a man whose reading tastes puzzled her, Paul was devastated by their divorce. “I’d let him fill out his own completed books into Bob’s pages,” she writes of her first husband. “When we split up, I ripped out those pages and gave them back.... My life and Bob had been torn apart at the seams.”
Books tore her first love asunder but later led her to her current husband. “When we met, I was reading Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography; he was reading Robert K. Massie’s "Dreadnought." We looked at each other’s books and thought, We’re good!"
For better and for worse, reviewing a memoir necessarily entails critiquing not only the memoir but also the memoirist. So – gulp! – here goes.
All too many memoirists of the female persuasion seem determined to preempt accusations of self-absorption by crafting themselves as excessively self-deprecating protagonists. Paul is one of them. Despite her post-feminist generational affiliation (Paul is 46) and exceptional individual achievements, "My Life with Bob" is littered with references to the author’s foibles and failures, starting with her self-designation as a “Flawed Heroine” in the book’s subtitle, and continuing on to such comments as “I deserved to be alone.” Paul writes insightfully about "Catch-22," but ends her analysis, “I couldn’t have been more deluded.” Wittily but unflatteringly, she shrugs off the admiration of others when she uproots and moves to Thailand alone: “It seemed more that 5% of me had made a firm decision and dragged the other 95% along.”
Despite this minor annoyance, "My Life With Bob" is a fun, accessible, well-written bookalogue; the kind of memoir Pamela Paul would have raved about in the venerable New York Times Book Review if she hadn’t written it.
Meredith Maran’s latest book, "The New Old Me: My Late-Life Reinvention," is just out from Penguin.