My Life With Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues is one of those books that is incredibly quotable. I put little Post-it notes in the backs of my library books so that I always have paper on hand to make notations (in case my little notepad isn’t handy) and I filled four full Post-its – plus two pages in my notepad. Pamela Paul is very opinionated, which I suppose makes for a good book about books. Who’d want to read a book about books with a bunch of milquetoast opinions? Sometimes I really liked her, sometimes I found her insufferable (to be fair, mostly when she was younger. And who isn’t insufferable when they’re young?) But the entire time I was reading this, I found her interesting.
I think I expected more whimsy and less substance from this book, but I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of Paul’s tale. A shy only sister in a large family of brothers, she wanted to impress the librarians of her childhood with her reading taste. (“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.”) The reader follows Paul from adolescence and high school through college and world travels thereafter, then onto a first failed marriage and up to the present day, married with children (who are readers themselves.) All along the way, Paul describes how the books she chose informed her thinking and her life and vice versa. Her teenage obsession with the Andy Warhol-endorsed Slaves of New York, by Tama Janovitz, served as her “inchoate way of declaring to the rest of my high school classmates where I stood.” On a summer abroad in France, disgusted by her previous self-indulgent and histrionic diaries, she began “Bob,” her book of books. It would be a diary of the better part of herself, or the self she wanted to present to the world and become. Later, writing of her first marriage, she credits her intellectual and philosophical arguments with her then husband, also a voracious reader, with enhancing her ability to consider books on a deeper level. (“I’d gone from escaping into books and searching for answers to locating a considered remove, respecting my perspective on the work, and trusting my own responses. I hadn’t properly engaged with books before I’d met my husband; I’d never wrestled with a text. Before we were married, I”d never written a book review; a few months after we split up, I wrote my first.”)
I dare anyone to read the chapter about her father (called “Bad News: Tearjerkers”) and not bawl.
Some favorite lines:
“This is every reader’s catch-22: the more you read, the more you realize you haven’t read; the more you yearn to read more, the more you understand that you have, in fact, read nothing.”
“It was as if our fundamental differences became manifest in how we read, slicing through the fog of infatuation.”
“Books gnaw at me from around the edges of my life, demanding more time and attention. I am always left hungry.”
“The ability to choose one’s own books becomes slightly less satisfying when you realize your own children have that power, too, and they insist on reading about rainbow fairies or killer cats.”
I eagerly anticipated reading this because I also keep a “Bob” of my own. I’m on the second edition, actually, having filled up the first in 2015. They are nondescript lined journals, and they don’t have names, but they’re dear to my heart as a record of who I was when I was reading things. I’ve written little notes about who I started dating and when I broke up with them, when I began dating my now husband, when I had my son (precious little reading was done in the months thereafter!) I like to take these “Bobs” out from time to time and reflect on all the things I’ve read, how my tastes have changed, favorite books I’ve read more than once and ones I still want to reread. Paul sums up the appeal of a “Bob” nicely near the end of her memoir by saying,
I’d like to think others would get as much out of a Book of Books as I have gotten out of mine. For each of us, the books we’ve chosen across a lifetime reveal not only our evolving interests and tastes, but also our momentary and insatiable desires, the questions we can’t stop asking, the failings we recognize in ourselves at the time, and the ones we can see clearly only years later. We pass our lives according to our books – relishing and reacting against them, reliving their stories when we recall where we were when we read them and the reasons we did. Most people, I’m convinced, are not just searching for cocktail-party fodder when they ask what someone else is reading. They are trying to figure someone out, to get to the bottom of him. They are looking for clues.