“Aren’t we all writers these days? We live through text. With our status updates and our e-mails, many of us spend our days writing down more words than we speak aloud. Anyone can write a book or post a story and find readers. Even those whose book reviews live exclusively on Amazon or Goodreads or in diaries or in the text of e-mails are still active creators of the written word.”
I was ecstatic when I found about this book of books. Similar to the author’s tendency to track every book she’s read over the past 28 years, I’ve been doing the same – granted, for a different length of time – with the subtle addition of writing down the exact time I finished the last page. Looking back, I realize I never really gave it a second thought when I started writing down the books I read, because similar to what Pamela Paul said: “It’s my way of keeping track. Because if I didn’t write it all down, I worry (naturally), I would forget it.”
But what appealed to me in particular with My Life With Bob was the exploration of this next idea talked about in the paragraph below:
“Bob has lasted a lot longer than any of my abandoned teenage journals—I write in it still—and here’s why: diaries 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 wanted to remember: what I was reading when all that happened.”
What I didn’t anticipate going into this was the memoir-type style of this book, where the author would talk extensively about her own life while focusing on her love for books in the background. But since I love memoirs with a passion, I was more than welcome of this addition. We follow Pamela Paul from her childhood growing up with seven brothers, to her trying to seal a job as a librarian at the ripe age of ten (“Did she not see that I was a book person, different from other, more casual library visitors, that I cared?”), discussing her love for literary heroines, traveling across Asia and Europe fresh out of college (which read a bit like a backpacking travelogue), her journey on becoming a writer and what that meant for her, and moving onto to the present day working as an editor of the The New York Times Book Review, all the while weaving themes of romance, disappointment, marriage, and motherhood into the overall arc.
Also, so many sentiments shared in this book really resonated for me. Like this irrational feeling of jealousy being perfectly captured:
“Like W. H. Auden, who once wrote, “Occasionally, I come across a book which I feel has been written especially for me and for me only,” I considered certain books mine, and the idea that other people liked them and thought of them as theirs felt like an intrusion. (“Like a jealous lover, I don’t want anybody else to hear of it”—Auden, again.) I wanted to be the only one who knew about a book or at least to be the first one there.”
I’ve said these exact words before, so reading someone else expressing the same notion was pivotal. “You know that experience of reading thoughts you haven’t yet articulated to yourself?” This was that.
Plus, I felt like I had so much to say with every turning page. The ideas presented and analyzed in My Life With Bob provided me with “a sense of total and complete identification.”
However, the second half of the book did drag a bit while reading about her fights with her ex-husband over books… It wasn’t exactly what I’d signed up for. I personally preferred reading more about her formative years than the mess of her past relationship.
“The mistake had been thinking I was somehow above fucking up royally, that I was safe. But I had been just as vulnerable and oblivious as anyone else, and reading all the books in the world couldn’t have saved me.”
When the narrative moved on from that point, I breathed a sigh of relief. In particular when the focus shifted on a cherished notion of mine: making your loved ones read your favorite books.
“I didn’t read it,” Roger confessed once the plane reached cruising altitude. “But I meant to.”
I should have known. Except in cases of rare devotion—and even then—trying to make someone read something is like force-feeding a baby. Most people prefer reading what they want to read. This cold fact was particularly upsetting to my father, who viewed reading or watching something he recommended as a demonstration, even a proof, of love. He was obsessed with recommending, cajoling over and over until you submitted. “You have to watch Ballad of a Soldier, he’d insist, strong-arming you into the TV room. “Come in here,” he’d say as soon as I walked into his apartment on the Upper West Side. “I just want to show you one scene from Black Narcissus. Just one scene! Pammy, please!”
I wholeheartedly get the dad in this scenario.
“The prospect of finding someone who takes as much pleasure in the book as I do is often more a reward than the book itself. ”
Another thing I loved about My Life With Bob was the unexpected laugh-out-loud funny scenes, like this confession from the author on why she stayed an extra day in the hospital after giving birth to her third child:
“In truth, I stayed in the hospital because I was in the middle of The Hunger Games. I’d started reading it in early labor, paused so that I could give birth, and then picked it back up to read almost immediately after Teddy was born and latched on, reading as I nursed. It was a genuine page-turner, and for once, with great pleasure, I had time to turn the pages.”
All in all: this being my first nonfiction read purely about books completely satisfied my immediate and all-consuming bookish heart.