(Mis)ad­ven­tures of a bib­lio­phile

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Pamela Paul Su­san Wyn­d­ham

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

Pamela Paul

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