Pamela Paul has kept a Book of Books (Bob) listing all the books she has read, or attempted to read, for 28 years. My Life With Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, is Paul’s memoir of her life as a reader.
While Bob looms large, this is more a meditation on reading and why we do it, and less about the books themselves––though many of them of course do feature (we hoped till the end, but there is no final list, sadly).
Paul covers her bookworm childhood, travels to France, China, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam (hence, it’s appearance here), boyfriends and husbands who have read, or not read, the trials and pleasures of a reading life with children, and, finally, getting a job as the children’s book reviewer for The New York Times, and then a promotion to editor of The New York Times’ Book Review, where it becomes everyday for her to meet the authors she so highly reveres.
Some lovely serendipitous reading connections occurred throughout the book for this reader—as tends to happen whenever you put voracious readers together.
First, there’s the travel to Southeast Asia, which we had no idea about when we picked up My Life With Bob. Paul comes to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam in the early 1990s, living in Chiang Mai for a lengthy spell before embarking on a backpacking trip. The trip culminates in her begging for money from other backpackers in a cafe in Hanoi when she can’t access any banks, thanks to Citibank there being “just for show”:
“There was no American Express office. There was no American embassy. In a scene I never would have fathomed my senior year in college, I found myself begging from table to table in a cafe dominated by European and Israeli tourists, trying not to look like a hippie-dippie backpacking American fool even though I bore all the signs: I was wearing sandals and a pair of faded Thai cotton fisherman’s pants. My backpack was grubby, my hair unwashed. … But Spalding [author of Swimming to Cambodia], thank goodness, understood. One day, he assured me, this would be funny.”
Paul writes about how the books you travel with can become the lens through which you experience the new places you see and people you meet. The right book, such as Swimming to Cambodia, can be a solace and a joy; the wrong book, such as Romancing Vietnam, she writes, can be extremely irritating. (We’ve added Swimming to Cambodia to our list, along with a stack of others she mentions; the other Southeast Asian one is Khamsing Srinawk’s The Politician and Other Stories.)
When Paul lives in Chiang Mai, struggling to find her way in a place made much more foreign than today due to the absence of the internet, Anna Karenina accompanies her: “In my own small-scale Anna Karenina style, I, too, was trying to act independently but inadvertently defying social norms.”
Just a few chapters of the book are devoted to Southeast Asia, so we wouldn’t pick up this book for them alone, but if you’ve lived life as an avid reader, and you’re coming to the region, this could be the ideal book to accompany you.
On other serendipitous connections: Back in the United States, in the wake of a miserable divorce in her early twenties, Paul is taught essay writing by Lucy Grealy, herself the author of Autobiography of a Face, but also the subject of Truth and Beauty, by Ann Patchett–one of our favourite books. Much later, Paul also joins Kidlit, a book group started by Gretchin Rubin, someone we followed back in the early aughties when blogs and RSS feeds were a thing; these days she’s a New York Times best-selling author herself. Paul was also “scandalized” when her 10-year-old read A Wrinkle in Time but then didn’t want to read the next book in Madeleine L’Engle’s quintet; this also very much happened to me and my 10-year-old.
While these specifics touched us, much of Paul’s life will be thoroughly recognisable to any serious reader, who will rejoice in seeing the mirror Paul holds up. From hoping for bad weather days as a child so we don’t have to play outside, to never forgiving the person who doesn’t return a certain book–it seems we’re all of a type. And yet: “Nobody else on the planet has read this particular series of books in this exact order and been affected in precisely this way,” writes Paul.
And she’s right. The books we each read are our own particular kind of autobiography. For readers, books are entwined with our life, colouring and informing our reality as much as our reality informs our perspective as a reader. Readers will find themselves represented, and reassured, on page after page of Life With Bob. It's not quite the same as analogue Bob, but, well, we're off to update Goodreads.
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