Pamela Paul’s “My Life with Bob” is not about a lover or a husband or any other guy. Bob, rather, refers to her “Book Of Books”: a record of every book she’s read for the past 28 years. It’s an unadorned list — no commentary, no thumbs up or down; just date, author, title. But Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, treasures that list for both the memories it triggers and the milestones it represents throughout her exceptionally bookish life.
“My Life With Bob” can be read as an engaging and often funny memoir. It’s also a delightfully gushing love letter to books — books as a medium that can connect us, transport us and transform us. Because Paul truly is besotted with books: reading them, holding them, talking about them, writing about them and even writing her own.
Paul’s first memory of a book? That would be “The Pocket Book,” bound in fabric with workable pockets that could be snapped or buttoned shut. “I could hardly believe such a spectacular creation existed,” writes Paul, “and that it was mine. I wanted to climb inside The Pocket Book and snap it shut.”
Each chapter of “My Life With Bob” is named for a book that shaped a stage of her life. During her nerdy childhood in the 1980s (“Brave New World”), Paul gravitated toward forbidden or dangerous books, absorbing them voraciously from the safety of her cat-wallpapered bedroom on Long Island.
Bob entered Paul’s life during her summer abroad in rural France. A sullen teen bubbling with umbrage at being exiled to Nowheresville, she read “The Trial” and decided that Kafka’s Joseph K. was “a hero with whom I could identify.” She wrote the title down in a blank diary — and an obsessive ritual was born.
More books define Paul’s years at Brown University, where, she laments, “You didn’t talk about liking a book; you ripped it to pieces.” She read throughout a post-college year traveling in Thailand (“Anna Karenina,” “Swimming to Cambodia” ) and her laughably mismatched early job in publishing: working on the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue — when she happened to be reading, appropriately enough, Sherwin B. Nuland’s “The Wisdom of the Body.”
Most endearing, though, may be Paul’s admission that she opted for an extra day in the hospital after giving birth to her third child to finish “The Hunger Games,” which she’d begun during labor. “It was a genuine page-turner,” she explains, “and for once, with great pleasure, I had time to turn the pages.”
As one of the most influential editors in the publishing industry, Paul is no ordinary bibliophile. And she acknowledges the oddity of her position, transformed from starry-eyed wallflower to belle of the literary ball. “In this new, still surreal reading life,” as she puts it, she finds herself interacting with the heroes of her youth, the Judy Blumes and Salman Rushdies. Alas, the status change has meant abandoning her writing-group friends still scribbling away in obscurity: “I’d joined the other side.”
At heart, though, Paul sounds like anyone whose idea of a perfect afternoon is a comfy chair and an absorbing novel. She just happens to read for work. The ironic downside of such a privilege? She has little time to read for pleasure. Nowadays, writes Paul, “books gnaw at me from around the edges of my life, demanding more time and attention. I am always left hungry.”
Christina Ianzito is a freelance writer in Washington.
By Pamela Paul
Henry Holt. 242 pp. $27