(Mis)adventures of a bibliophile
ou’ll know this bibliomemoir is for you if, within a few pages, you want to be friends with Pamela Paul: an anxious, self-deprecating, unathletic, dreamy, driven woman who probably would prefer to have her head in a book than talk to you.
Paul’s story is a fairytale about a Long Island girl who often felt like an outsider failing at life but followed her passion to become the author of four nonfiction books and editor of The New York Times Book Review. She is a nerd who records the title and author of every book she reads in a fraying exercise book, and a wit who calls the resulting list her Book of Books or, more intimately, Bob.
Bob has been Paul’s most enduring companion of the past 30 years and My Life with Bob is the story of that relationship. As she writes, she abandoned many teenage diaries because they “contained all kinds of things I wanted to forget — unrequited crushes and falling-outs with friends and angsting over college admissions. Bob contains things I want to remember: what I was reading when all that happened.”
The irony is that this chatty, intelligent and often funny self-portrait confides many of the embarrassing stories she intended to forget. Because, as any reader knows, the books we choose, the books we love or hate, become part of us. Pull an old book off your shelf and a chapter of your life reopens.
Bob began when Paul was a 17-year-old exchange student in France and the first page of her diary — reproduced here — portrays an earnest young intellectual who was gulping down Franz Kafka, Joseph Conrad and James Joyce, leavened with Kurt Vonnegut, Stephen King and Anne Rice.
Instead, as she remembers that summer, Kafka’s The Trial was appropriate reading because “I, too, was the victim of a cruel and arbitrary yet somehow preordained fate”. Dumped in a rural town “somewhere in France’s armpit”, Paul failed to master French or bond with her American fellow students. Keeping her secret reading diary allowed a sullen teenager to create a better outcome for herself.
Paul’s book joins a growing genre of books about books that extends beyond the critical to the personal, with elements of self-improvement and celebration. The trend began with popular scholars such as Alberto Manguel ( A History of Reading) and Alain de Botton ( How Proust Can Change Your Life). Recent Australian variations include broadcaster Ramona Koval’s memoir By the Book and philosopher Damon Young’s The Art of Reading.
Paul’s approach is anecdotal and entertaining, aiming not to educate readers about literature but to show how the two-way empathy of books can enrich our lives. It’s a challenge to animate the sedentary act of reading and My Life with Bob cleverly draws its drama and humour from her (mis)adventures in travel, love and domestic life.
Now in her 40s, Paul was a born bibliophile when reading was a lonely pursuit, before Harry Potter queues and bookstore readings. At university, she says, “You didn’t talk about liking a book; you ripped it to pieces.” So her pleasure was mostly private. A child of divorced parents, a girl among seven brothers, she found more perfect families in books such as Little Women, and saw her shameful emotions reflected in Judy Blume’s young adult novels. Though she may appear all-American to Australian readers, she admits to hating On the Road, and The Catcher in the Rye “even more”.
As her world expanded, Paul became an eclectic reader of history, politics, biography, travel. Through books she finds herself and experiences lives remote from her own. She identified with Anna Karenina while living in Thailand; endured a gruelling trip to China with Jung Chang’s Wild Swans and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History; and saw parallels between the politics of Les Miserables and contemporary France. She learned that reading alone in foreign places could be dangerous, as could choosing a husband based on his taste in books.
Her first marriage crashed after arguments over Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Paul Johnson’s Modern Times but taught Paul how to read critically. She could never love someone who loved The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. But her second husband is so simpatico that he keeps his own Big List of Books, aka Blob.
There are comic scenes, always at the author’s expense: her implacable determination to work in a bookshop at the age of 10, her gaffe when trying to discuss John Steinbeck in French, her neglect of her breastfeeding newborn baby as she became absorbed in The Hunger Games. And there’s tragedy when Paul recalls, through the prism of Edward St Aubyn’s semi-autobiographical Patrick Melrose novels, her tense relationship with her father and his death.
Paul is an expert in children’s books, both professionally and as a mother. Parents will enjoy her desire to introduce her children to her favourite books, most of which they reject.
My Life with Bob works to some extent as a reading guide, and inevitably stimulates selfexamination. Our tastes differ somewhat: she’s a George Eliot fan, while I have read (and enjoyed) Ulysses; she cries more, yet we both like dark, sad books. Call me nerdy, but I would have liked to see her full list to tick off against my own.
I know that if we were friends we would never run out of conversation, and My Life with Bob will leave other book lovers with the same feeling of connection. will be a guest at the Sydney Writers Festival, May 22 to 28. literary editor. is a journalist, writer and former