My Life With Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues

My Life With Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues

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.

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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.

Buy online: Amazon | Book Depository |



108 results found

Burma (Myanmar)

Burmese Days
Burmese Days

By George Orwell

Finding George Orwell
Finding George Orwell

By Emma Larkin

Miss Burma
Miss Burma

By Charmaine Craig

The Glass Palace
The Glass Palace

By Amitav Ghosh

The Trouser People
The Trouser People

By Andrew Marshall

Cambodia

Dogs at the Perimeter
Dogs at the Perimeter

By Madeleine Thien

Holiday in Cambodia
Holiday in Cambodia

By Laura Jean McKay

Hun Sen’s Cambodia
Hun Sen’s Cambodia

By Sebastian Strangio

Hunters in the Dark
Hunters in the Dark

By Lawrence Osborne

King Norodom's Head
King Norodom's Head

By Steven W. Boswell

River of Time
River of Time

By Jon Swain

The Gate
The Gate

By Francoise Bizot

Indonesia

A House in Bali
A House in Bali

By Colin McPhee

Beauty is a Wound
Beauty is a Wound

By Eka Kurniawan

Black Water
Black Water

By Louise Doughty

Home
Home

By Leila S. Chudori

In the Time of Madness
In the Time of Madness

By Richard Lloyd Parry

Indonesia Etc.
Indonesia Etc.

By Elizabeth Pisani

On the Java Ridge
On the Java Ridge

By Jock Serong

Ring of Fire
Ring of Fire

By Lawrence Blair

The Malay Archipelago
The Malay Archipelago

By Alfred Russel Wallace

The Rainbow Troops
The Rainbow Troops

By Andrea Hirata

The Year of Living Dangerously
The Year of Living Dangerously

By Christopher J. Koch

This Earth of Mankind
This Earth of Mankind

By Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Under the Volcano
Under the Volcano

By Cameron Forbes

Laos

Malaysia

Singapore

Crazy Rich Asians
Crazy Rich Asians

By Kevin Kwan

From Third World to First
From Third World to First

By Lee Kuan Yew

If I Could Tell You
If I Could Tell You

By Jing-Jing Lee

In Transit: An Anthology
In Transit: An Anthology

By Zhang Ruihe and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow

Sarong Party Girls
Sarong Party Girls

By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

Singapore Noir
Singapore Noir

By Cheryl Lu-Tien Tan

State of Emergency
State of Emergency

By Jeremy Tiang

Sugarbread
Sugarbread

By Balli Kaur Jaswal

The Tower
The Tower

By Isa Kamari (translated by Alfian Sa'at)

Thailand

A Tiger in Eden
A Tiger in Eden

By Chris Flynn

Bangkok Found
Bangkok Found

By Alex Kerr

Hothouse Flower
Hothouse Flower

By Lucinda Riley

Jasmine Nights
Jasmine Nights

By S.P. Somtow

Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind
Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind

By Carol Hollinger

Many Lives
Many Lives

By M.R Kukrit Pramoj

Sightseeing
Sightseeing

By Rattawut Lapcharoensap

Thai Street Food
Thai Street Food

By David Thompson

The Beach
The Beach

By Alex Garland

The Drinking Food of Thailand
The Drinking Food of Thailand

By Andy Ricker with JJ Goode

The Narrow Road to the Deep North
The Narrow Road to the Deep North

By Richard Flanagan

The Sad Part Was
The Sad Part Was

By Prabda Yoon

The Windup Girl
The Windup Girl

By Paolo Bacigalupi

Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture
Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture

By Philip Cornwel-Smith

Vietnam

Bright Shining Lie
Bright Shining Lie

By Neil Sheehan

Destination Saigon
Destination Saigon

By Walter Mason

Dragon Apparent
Dragon Apparent

By Norman Lewis

Fishing for Tigers
Fishing for Tigers

By Emily Maguire

The Lover
The Lover

By Marguerite Duras

The Quiet American
The Quiet American

By Graham Greene

The Refugees
The Refugees

By Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Sorrow of War
The Sorrow of War

By Bao Ninh

The Sympathizer
The Sympathizer

By Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Things They Carried
The Things They Carried

By Tim O’Brien

When the War Was Over
When the War Was Over

By Elizabeth Becker

General