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Imagine keeping a record of every book you’ve ever read. What would this reading trajectory say about you? With passion, humor, and insight, the editor of The New York Times Book Review shares the stories that have shaped her life.
Pamela Paul has kept a single book by her side for twenty-eight years – carried throughout high school and college, hauled from Paris to London to Thailand, from job to job, safely packed away and then carefully removed from apartment to house to its current perch on a shelf over her desk – reliable if frayed, anonymous-looking yet deeply personal. This book has a name: Bob.
Bob is Paul’s Book of Books, a journal that records every book she’s ever read, from Sweet Valley High to Anna Karenina, from Catch-22 to Swimming to Cambodia, a journey in reading that reflects her inner life – her fantasies and hopes, her mistakes and missteps, her dreams and her ideas, both half-baked and wholehearted. Her life, in turn, influences the books she chooses, whether for solace or escape, information or sheer entertainment.
But My Life with Bob isn’t really about those books. It’s about the deep and powerful relationship between book and reader. It’s about the way books provide each of us the perspective, courage, companionship, and imperfect self-knowledge to forge our own path. It’s about why we read what we read and how those choices make us who we are. It’s about how we make our own stories.
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My Life with Bob
Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues
By Pamela Paul
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2017 Pamela Paul
All rights reserved.
Brave New World
You Shouldn't Be Reading That
When you're a child, reading is full of rules. Books that are appropriate and books that are not, books that grown-ups will smile at you approvingly for cradling in your arms and those that will cause grimaces when they spy you tearing through their pages. There are books you're not supposed to be reading, at least not just yet. There is a time and a place.
But for me it felt like there was never enough time, and the place was elusive. 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. Carrying a book was practically against the law at summer camp, where downtime was for forced mass song. Children were meant to be running around, engaged in active, healthy play with other hardy boys and girls.
I hated running around.
Before every elementary school classroom had a "Drop Everything and Read" period, before parents and educators agonized more about children being glued to Call of Duty or getting sucked into the vortex of the Internet, reading as a childhood activity was not always revered. Maybe it was in some families, in some towns, in some magical places that seemed to exist only in stories, but not where I was. Nobody trotted out the kid who read all the time as someone to be admired like the ones who did tennis and ballet and other feats requiring basic coordination.
While those other kids pursued their after-school activities in earnest, I failed at art, gymnastics, ice skating, soccer, and ballet with a lethal mix of inability, fear, and boredom. Coerced into any group endeavor, I wished I could just be home already. Rainy days were a godsend because you could curl up on a sofa without being banished into the outdoors with an ominous "Go play outside."
Well into adulthood, I would chastise myself over not settling on a hobby — knitting or yoga or swing dancing or crosswords — and just reading instead. The default position. Everyone else had a passion; where was mine? How much happier I would have been to know that reading was itself a passion. Nobody treated it that way, and it didn't occur to me to think otherwise.
People laugh today at Roald Dahl's idea that Matilda's father would scream at his daughter to watch TV rather than slink off with a book, but there is a tiny sliver of truth to the satire, where, on the dark side of seventies benign neglect, parents didn't run around boasting "She's such a reader!" or try to bribe their kids into summer reading. You were supposed to be well rounded, not bookish. Reading too much hurt your eyes and made you need glasses. So did reading by poor light. My own bedside lamp, my mother pointed out, got especially hot and was a fire hazard. Reading in cars made you throw up. Squinting at too-small letters left you blind.
There was a shiftiness to kids who secreted themselves in a corner to read God knows what instead of what they should have been doing. Reading when you were supposed to be raking the leaves, reading when you were supposed to be sleeping, reading when you were supposed to be making the bed, not lying in it. I did everything I could to read my way out of doing anything else. It was the one thing I was good at.
Social skills were not my forte. I was shy as a child, and if my nose was in a book, nobody had to know about this failing. Anything to have fewer adults declare loudly right in front of me, "Oh, she's shy! Look at her hiding — that's okay. I didn't realize she was shy," as if they'd found out I lacked a key mental faculty. At school, I walked around in a state of perpetual embarrassment, certain others could sniff out something different about me. Any second I might trip and fall in front of everyone or find a peanut butter smear on my pants that had been there since lunch period. Or I might accidentally sit at the wrong table, setting off some kind of social distress signal that every other kid but me could hear.
Afraid of being left out or singled out, I turned myself into an independent agent, only lightly associated with others. I read alone, I biked alone, I fed the ducks across the street alone, and I played with my cat alone. I was the only girl among seven brothers, and for the most part our interests did not align. "You must have been so spoiled, so cared for!" people say when they learn about my solitary femaleness; nothing could have been further from reality. Anytime I exhibited the merest sign of girlishness it was mocked into oblivion; I grew resentful of any "privilege" that marked me apart. Whenever my brothers were paired off into bedrooms, I felt exiled; I could hear them whispering among themselves through thin walls. At any moment, one of them might wrestle me to the ground, pin me down, and let a gob of saliva dangle threateningly over my face.
My parents divorced when I was three or four (nobody seems to remember exactly), and my father had moved to a series of small rentals on the Upper West Side and then into his girlfriend's rent-stabilized middle-income apartment on Columbus Avenue with her two sons. My mother remarried when I was seven, and we moved to an ancient house in a new town with her new husband and his three much older sons. Though her new husband was retired, my mother worked long hours juggling multiple jobs, commuting into the city, where she was an advertising copywriter; then she worked into the night freelance editing a series of trade magazines. My brothers and I largely fended for ourselves, walking to school and returning home on our own. Arguments were to be "worked out" among ourselves. This usually meant threats, slammed doors, and occasional outbursts of violence. I tended to miss when I kicked.
Families seemed better inside books; in All-of-a-Kind Family and Little Women, there were sisters. (All I had was my cousin Kirsten, three years younger and always living somewhere far away — Florida, Germany, Colorado Springs.) Families in books were large and friendly; siblings hugged one another spontaneously and ate scrumptious holiday meals around a table. Nobody sat stonily through servings of boiled spinach and baked potatoes. One day, I resolved, I would have a family like that.
I had the misfortune of being an exceptionally healthy child, never having an infection or vomiting, with only one or two fevers to show for my entire school career. How I longed to be ill so I could stay home and read. No such luck. My mom could spot a faker and had little patience for anything that wasn't a sky-high fever. It was a blow to discover that the trick that worked in books — putting a thermometer by the lightbulb — didn't work in real life.
Reading time became my time and place, another dimension where events operated by my own set of rules. Nobody else needed to know when you snuck off with your Sweet Valley Highs whether you were a Jessica who wished she were an Elizabeth or vice versa. What you read revealed what you cared about and feared, what you hoped for because you didn't have it, what questions you wanted answered without publicly unmasking your ignorance. I guarded this information fiercely.
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.
In fourth grade, reading Forever felt like breaking the law with every turn of the page. Just acknowledging Judy Blume's existence, with her frank acknowledgment of tweenish emotions, filled me with shame. That the procuring of such intimate books had to be public was horrifying especially because I cared enormously what the library staff thought of me. I liked to imagine the clerk surveying my outgoing stack with admiration and approval. Look at that wise little girl, he was meant to think. She's one of us. When I checked out the Blumes, I'd wait until the coast was clear, staring resolutely away from the clerk like a thirteen-year-old buying Tampax, hoping he wouldn't connect me with that other sage girl who read Louisa May Alcott.
I was certain I'd lose their respect entirely if they caught me when, following the gateway drug of Judy Blume, I progressed to Paula Danziger and Norma Klein, explicit and positively dirty. That there were books I knew were inappropriate, and that I wanted to read them anyway, was obviously a personality flaw. The climax of exploitative teenage lit was, of course, V. C. Andrews's scintillating incest series that began with Flowers in the Attic, but those I got at Barnes & Noble. I wasn't prepared to risk everything.
Eventually, having worn out the children's floor, I ventured upstairs toward the grown-up library. On a kind of purgatorial mezzanine stood three rotating racks filled with what then passed as young adult fiction. Most were romances, including Sweet Dreams.
Clearly there was something disgraceful about the Sweet Dreams series. With titles like P.S. I Love You and The Popularity Plan, they were displayed unforgivingly in a wide-open space where grown-ups could see exactly what you were doing. I would dash up and quickly spin the rack, eyes scanning expertly for heretofore undiscovered volumes. The covers featured photographs of before-they-were-famous teenage actresses gazing soulfully. A gangly sixth grader with a greasy center part, I didn't look anything like those cover girls, and I certainly didn't know romance. I had to read every single one.
But I could easily cross the line into places that still felt decidedly off-limits, even to me. Once, at Barnes & Noble, I chose a novel with the naked back of a silhouetted female torso on its cover, decades before such images became the tired trope of "women's fiction." It looked daring, but not dangerous; I had no idea what it was about. When I got home and started to read, I quickly realized I'd entered uncharted territory for a ten-year-old kid in 1980s Long Island. What was this word "lesbian"? If I read the book and was found out, it was certain there would be terrible repercussions.
Better to just turn myself in. My mom was sitting in the living room when I approached in a sweat, book upside down as if to mask its incendiary contents.
"I don't think this is for me," I said, handing it over with instant relief. My mother took the book away wordlessly, and we never spoke of it again.
"The trouble with books," Jeanette Winterson's mother once admonished her, "is that you don't know what's in them until it's too late." This is precisely right. We might read about things we weren't supposed to, find out what adults didn't want us to discover. But this wasn't altogether bad. Books, I soon realized, were a way to acquire illicit knowledge, a key to adulthood that otherwise remained hidden, whether you were entirely ready or not. I'd been a fool to relinquish that power.
Books are how cautious kids get to experience a kind of secondhand rebellion, a safe way to go off the rails. While for the most part I sought out any book bearing the golden seal of the Newbery Medal, safe and "good" books, perhaps in part to balance that as I got older, I was drawn to the troublemakers — the Edie Sedgwicks and Jim Morrisons and Marilyn Monroes. Soon, I had to get my hands on anything remotely "countercultural," Lady Chatterley's Lover, Madame Bovary, and what I thought of as "bad boy" books — the Beats, cult favorites, any title that had somewhere at some point been banned.
Not all these books were as fun as expected. I was bored by Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and hated On the Road, and I hated The Catcher in the Rye even more. Their heroes seemed more like antiheroes; fundamentally eager to please, I wasn't open to characters who thumbed their noses at the authorities. I felt compelled to read them nonetheless and have felt equally disinclined to return to them since. But the more downtrodden characters, I positively adored. Anyone who was a heroin addict or knew a heroin addict or wrote about another heroin addict was good enough for me. Accounts of dead drug-addicted celebrities constituted their own lush genre, the more sordid the behavior and devastating the downfall, the better. I felt sorry for them, and this emotional largesse made me feel better about me.
This made the forceful removal of the next "inappropriate" book devastating. It was the early eighties. Saturday Night Live was the height of cool. It didn't matter that I'd never actually stayed up late enough for the TV show because there was a book, Wired, Bob Woodward's bestselling biography of John Belushi. Wired had been featured on magazine covers, which meant it was important. When my mother caught me with a copy — and only on the opening chapter! — she swiped it. No amount of tears would overturn her decision.
The truth is she had nothing to fear. Reading about bad guys scared the hell out of me, reinforcing the line between us. In real life, nothing about the rebels and willful misfits was remotely appealing. Listening to Holden Caulfield moan and groan, I couldn't help but think, What a jerk. What did he have to complain about, with his privileged life and his private school and his afternoons wandering unsupervised around Manhattan?
My attraction to the dark side may have been that it allowed me to explore the forbidden from a safe distance, helping me draw distinctions between the kind of person I wanted to be and what I wanted to avoid. When I grim-mindedly chose to read Brave New World, along with 1984 and A Clockwork Orange, for my honors thesis in high school, it was my way of proving I was grown-up enough to make these choices.
In the World State of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, people are not allowed to spend time by themselves; leisure time is to be spent thoughtlessly in benign group activity. Serious literature is banned and children are taught to stay in their place through targeted subconscious messages. Not surprisingly, Brave New World is one of the most frequently banned books in America, due to its "subversive" content. Brave New World was not for children, and that's partly what made it irresistible.
The title comes from Shakespeare's play The Tempest:
How many godly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in't.
This was intended ironically, by Shakespeare and by Huxley, who proposed that, in lieu of beauteous mankind serving the greater interest, the world was full of selfish and nefarious people out to advance themselves. But for me, Brave New World held another, altogether different meaning. Books were my brave new world, my portal into the forbidden adult world, one that I could approach in my own vicarious way, drawing my own conclusions.
What a thrill it was to read beyond your means, asserting yourself through the books you chose, breaking the rules just slightly but in a way that helped define your own rules. As I got older, it began to dawn on me that nobody really knew or cared what I did inside a book, or why I was there. The clerks at the library weren't actually monitoring my activity. I stopped feeling embarrassed about my selections and became more confident about my ability to choose what I wanted. I even began to feel proud of those choices and, I liked to think, fairly sophisticated in my judgment. (I wasn't always right about this.) The brave new world outside might have been intimidating, but I could travel there surreptitiously inside a book, and if I played it right I would never get in trouble.CHAPTER 2
Slaves of New York
The Literary Life
Children are notoriously literal readers, and I was no exception. Books, I believed, contained the entire truth about everything, and if you could just read every book or even a good chunk of the Truly Important Ones, you would know what you needed to know about real life. And you could be a part of it.
Naturally, I got a lot of things wrong. When I was eleven, I told my mother quite adamantly that Norma Klein wrote the classic 1939 folk song "You Are My Sunshine," because it had appeared in one of her teen-weepy novels, the song a husband lovingly sang to his dying wife. "I really don't think so," my mother replied, but what did she know? I'd read it that way so it had to be true.
All books, to my mind, were essentially guidebooks. I sucked them up the way Martha the dog slurps alphabet soup in Martha Speaks and learns how to talk. I was precisely what Hermann Hesse once called a "naïve reader," consuming books as one consumes food, swallowing them whole. "This kind of reader is not related to a book as one person is to another but rather as a horse to his manager or perhaps as a horse to his driver: the book leads, the reader follows," Hesse explained. "The substance is taken objectively, accepted as reality." Exactly. And what was wrong with that?
Reading could instruct you on how to live, and not only that — it could teach you how to live the smartest, coolest, most urbane life imaginable, which meant nobody would ever be able to tell how silly and ignorant and suburban you once were. Books about older, wiser, and all-around better people would prepare you for anything that happened outside of books. They would make it clear how to act and how to react.
Excerpted from My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul. Copyright © 2017 Pamela Paul. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Why Keep Track? 1
1. Brave New World: You Shouldn’t Be Reading That 9
2. Slaves of New York: The Literary Life 19
3. The Trial: A Book with No Ending 27
4. Catch-22: Never Enough 38
5. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Required Reading 54
6. Into That Darkness: Voyeurism 64
7. The Grapes of Wrath: Among Readers 71
8. A Journey of One’s Own: Books That Change Your Life 80
9. Anna Karenina: Heroines 91
10. Swimming to Cambodia: The Company of Narrators 104
11. Wild Swans: Inspirational Reading 116
12. The Secret History: Solitary Reading 129
13. The Wisdom of the Body: In Love with a Book 135
14. The Magic Mountain: Different Interpretations 143
15. Autobiography of a Face: On Self-Help 153
16. Flashman: I Do Not Like Your Books 164
17. The Master and Margarita: Recommendations 175
18. The Hunger Games: No Time to Read 184
19. A Wrinkle in Time: Reading with Children 192
20. Bad News: Tearjerkers 205
21. Les Misérables: Why Read? 219
22. A Spy Among Friends: Other Writers 230
Epilogue: The Lives We Read 238