Tuesday, May 2, 2017
What's more fascinating than exploring a person's life story through the books they've chosen to read? New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul talks about MY LIFE WITH BOB and the fierce relationship between books and readers
2013 was the year when we all began talking about Pamela Paul. To have a smart, funny, talented woman take on the editorship of the venerable New York Times Book Review, overseeing all book coverage at a time when women were not getting the review real estate that their male colleagues were, seemed like the best kind of change. And it absolutely has been. Ms. Paul (It doesn’t feel right to call her Pamela), started one of my favorite sections in the NYTBR, By The Book, where authors get to answer quirky, fascinating questions (By the Book is also..well, a book itself, edited by Paul). And more change is coming. But more than that, she’s the host of the weekly podcast, Inside the New York Times Book Review, and she’s a terrific author as well. The Washington Post named her debut, The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony as one of the Best Books of 2002. The San Francisco Chronicle did the same for her second, Pornified. She’s published Parenting, Inc, , contributes to Time and is a columnist for Worth, as well as publishing in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New York Times Education Life, The Economist, Vogue, Slate and more.
She’s also been a guest on Oprah, Good Morning America, The Today Show, The Early Show, and Politically Incorrect, and has made regular appearances on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. And I’m so honored that I can also say she’s appearing on my blog, carolineleavittville.com. Oh, and she’s very, very funny on Facebook.
Her latest book, My Life with Bob is a memoir about the book lists that Paul kept, from girlhood on, always noting how each book she read defined her, enlightened her, and inspired her into traveling roads she might never have taken otherwise. It’s the kind of book that makes you get out that moleskin diary you bought five years ago and never touched, and now start writing down your thoughts about your own books and your own life. Like all great art, it makes you see your world--and your books-- differently. And how exciting is that?
Thank you so, so much, Ms. Paul. for letting me pepper you with questions. I’m so jazzed and honored to host you here. My Life with Bob is an ingenious idea. I wish I had done that growing up—though I certainly could start now.
I always want to know the “why now?” question—what was it that made you want to write this particular book at this particular time?
I had written about Bob in 2011 as a back page essay in the Book Review in the same issue I launched the By the Book column, which began with David Sedaris. And I wrote that essay in part to explain the idea behind By the Book – that a person’s life story could be told, in a way, through the books she’s read. That essay, “My Life with Bob,” ended up being one of the most popular essays we’d ever run. I got tons of emails and letters, many of which boiled down to one of two messages: Either “I keep a book of books too!” or “I wish I’d done that.”
I hadn’t thought about expanding it until my editor at Henry Holt suggested doing so at a lunch, as a follow up to the book we did together of collected By the Book columns. Usually, when someone else suggests a book idea, it doesn’t feel right – it’s like wearing a costume rather than your own clothes. I remember after “The Starter Marriage” came out, a number of editors approached me wanting me to write “The Starter Marriage II” or something to that effect, which didn’t interest me at all. It’s like, as a freelance writer, the difference between pitching a story idea of your own versus getting one assigned to you by an editor with his or her own idea. Only rarely does that other person’s idea resonate enough that you feel motivated to make it your own.
When my editor suggested a book around “My Life with Bob,” I hesitated at first because it felt so personal, and I prefer to write reported stories about other people – maybe with a first-person anecdotal lede, but in large part, I like to stay out of the story.
But I couldn’t reject the idea outright because it also felt like something I’d want to write and something I ought to write and maybe even something I needed to write. And for me, having that intrinsic motivation is so important to writing. If my heart isn’t in it, it’s very hard to gin up the energy to write. But when my heart is in something, I have the opposite problem – it’s hard for me to stop. I write sentences in my head while walking. I have trouble falling asleep because new paragraphs start swirling in my head. I wake up in the middle of the night to write bits down on a notepad by my bedside. That’s what immediately began to happen when I thought about turning Bob into this new book.
Did writing about books of your past—and who you were when you were reading them, make you want to reread them now to see the difference?
Mostly, I wanted to reread them to better remember what I’d read in the first place! I really do have a terrible memory. I can watch movies over and over again, even thrillers with twisty plots, with the same level of enjoyment when I viewed them the first time because I don’t remember any of it. I still jump when killers pop out of corners and fall into pits of despair over the sad parts.
I did find myself re-reading a couple of books and stories in their entirety – it was impossible to resist them. I could never Marie Kondo-ize my book collection. She says never to open a book when deciding whether or not to keep it. I can’t help opening books. It’s impossible to resist. But by and large, I’m not a huge re-reader. I still feel like I have so much left that I haven’t read – both in terms of books that I’ve had around for years and years, and books that get published every month. I want to read so many of them, and there is, as Sara Nelson once put it in a book title, so little time.
In high school and college, I developed the habit of writing in books—which I disavowed once I was out of school. But sometime, seeing those notes that I wrote—my early responses to books, is illuminating. What’s your feeling about writing in books?
I love finding my old notes in books! I used to do it more often. There are lots of notes in my copy of Anna Karenina, and also, notes my ex-husband wrote in there, so looking at it now is like finding this weird time capsule of a former life. That said, I rarely do write in books unless I’m reviewing them. When I’m reviewing them, which I don’t really do anymore as the editor of the Book Review, I scribble in them endlessly and fill the inside jackets with notes. I love those annotated galleys.
I loved that you spoke about how it isn’t just reading that shapes us—we and our lives shape what we read, which might be a reason why a friend might love a book that you yourself hate. And as an author, I also appreciated that this applies to reviews, as well. Can you talk a bit about this please?
I could talk about this endlessly, but will try to keep it brief. Where you are coming from, what’s going on in your life at the moment, what kind of person you are and what kind of person you consider yourself to be – all of this affects how you experience a book. It’s why a book can never really exist in isolation, only in relationship to a reader. Each of us brings expectations and hopes and baggage, and it affects how we view a character (“He reminds me of my awful Uncle Steve” or “I wish my wife were more like her” or “I used to be this way, but somehow I lost this character’s sense of wonder and engagement with the world.”) It affects how we view story (“I can’t understand how anyone could abandon a child.” “Why doesn’t he see her for who she really is?” “I wish I knew what it was like to explore the jungle.”) We bring our memories of college, of Prague, of first love, of jettisoned dreams to stories.
And that’s why readers often see stories not only differently from the way other readers see them, but from how the authors themselves conceived of them. Every author knows those moments when a reader tells the author about her own book, and the author shakes her head in disbelief: But that’s not what I thought I wrote! That’s not what I intended. That’s not the kind of man this character is. And yet, of course, the reader’s experience of the book is just as true as the author’s experience. It’s all subjective. Which is also why reviews of the same book can vary so widely.
I always feel that certain books have a sense memory—I remember reading a Ray Bradbury story, The Long Rain, when I was twelve. At the end of the story, all the men have drowned in the rain on Venus, but one survives and finds a Sun Dome and eats a “rich chicken meat sandwich with tomatoes.” I had never eaten a sandwich like that, but I immediately went and made myself one, and it was more delicious because I imagined I had escaped rainy Venus, too. Do you think books have the power to change our brains, in that they can be so real, we think we have lived in them, and they become part of our memory?
Absolutely! One of the books I read recently that demonstrated exactly this so well was Rachel Cusk’s “Outline.” I’m going to mangle the details, because this is all from (poor) memory, but the essence is the following. The novel consists almost entirely of conversations the near-nameless protagonist has with other people – some passing acquaintances, others old friends. One person recalls being at a dinner party where the table was directly underneath a large rectangular skylight. The person at that dinner party is told a story by a fellow diner about how she heard that at another dinner party, with a similar skylight over the dining table, it rained or snowed so hard that the glass window broke and shattered all over the table.
Hearing this story, the diner at the table with the intact skylight is nonetheless profoundly affected by it. And so is the near nameless protagonist to whom he or she is telling the story. And so, of course, is the reader, in this case me, who can palpably feel what it must have been like to be sitting at the dining room table with the shattered glass all over the meal and the diners and the room. Even though that event is effectively four steps removed from my own experience. I feel like I have lived through that experience, even though it has been handed down to me via these characters from one to the other.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
You didn’t ask but I will tell you that the strangest thing about this book is that it was written entirely on the train, mostly because that was the only time I had to write it. I have a full-time job and three young children, so there was pretty much no choice. It was my one free window. And for me, at least, it was a fantastic experience. I had no idea writing on the train could be so fun and so efficient. You truly have no choice to procrastinate. There’s no getting up and going into the other room to make sure the garbage disposal is empty or that the mail hasn’t arrived.
Bonus question—When I was 11, my mom pulled out a series of books from the library and told me I was mature enough to read them. She had loved them as a girl, so they became even more important. All I remember about them was that it took place in France and it had a guy named Pierre pulling off the jacket of Elizabeth, whom he loved, so hard that the buttons popped. There was also Elizabeth’s sister Sally, who ended up a drug addict in NYC. I was shocked, but I never stopped thinking about that book, and I’ve never been able to find it and I think I have asked every librarian and book person on the planet. You know it?
That would drive me completely nuts. I have no idea, but I hope you continue asking everyone you know. You never know when you’ll figure it out. My husband dug up for me a clip of a TV show that I knew existed and that I described to everyone I met who grew up in the tri-state area, but that no one else could recall. All I knew was that there was a white guy with an Afro who was in front of a giant computer and there was this ridiculous low-techno musical tune and the world “Marlo” repeated over and over. My husband found it for me after I spent decades in fruitless pursuit. So I hope you or someone you encounter can answer this one.