Since 1988, Pamela Paul has recorded the title and author of every book she reads in a battered notebook she calls her Book of Books — the eponymous “Bob” of her engaging memoir, “My Life With Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues” (Henry Holt, $27). It moves from a shy, bookish childhood in Port Washington through a failed first marriage that (in an ironic twist worthy of fiction) was the launchpad for a successful career as a freelance journalist and author. Remarried with three children, Paul has been editor of The New York Times Book Review since 2013. She considered the challenges of juggling writing, reading, editing and parenting in a recent conversation from her office. It has been edited for length and clarity.
“My Life With Bob” grew from an essay you wrote in The New York Times Book Review, is that right?
Yes. The reason I wrote the essay was that I was starting the “By the Book” column, because I felt you could tell a lot about a person just by talking about their reading life. I ran this essay about Bob in the same issue as the first column to explain what “By the Book” was. The outpouring of response was amazing. No one said, “Why would you do such a thing?” The reaction divided into, “Oh my God, I do that too!” and “Oh my God, I wish I had done that!” That kind of heartfelt response made me think this was a book people would be interested in.
Were you surprised when it turned out to be a personal memoir, not just about books you have read?
I never intended to write a memoir! I thought of this as a book about books, and therefore not entirely about me, but of course I realized while writing that it was indeed a memoir. I had kept diaries sporadically throughout my childhood and into my 20s, but I would look back at what I’d written and think, “Who wrote that? Who is that poor, sad person with these emotions that I don’t identify with at all anymore?” Whereas when I look back in Bob, I think, “Yeah, I remember that exactly. I remember reading that, I remember where I was, I remember why I read it, I remember what I thought.” That all felt like me; Bob was a very reliable reference point.
How did you choose which books from a very long list to include?
They all had to be in my Book of Books, of course; they had to exemplify a time, they had to capture some kind of a theme around the experience of reading and something about my life, and the titles in themselves had to have some kind of meaning. It was this whole elaborate scheme that I’m sure only I and three other readers will notice! But it was good, because it enabled me to focus. I didn’t want anyone to think, “Well, I haven’t read these books, so why should I care?”
You had already written three books when you were offered the job of children’s book editor at The New York Times Book Review. Did you hesitate at all to “join the other side,” as you put it?
I did, because I loved writing from home, I loved writing books, I loved freelancing. It was one of those times when both options looked appealing, but I knew I had to pick one. I decided to do the leap, and for a time I was able to do that job part time so I could continue writing. But, like many part-time jobs, it became a full-time job — in a good way!
It’s very funny in this book when you write that your children “looked stricken” when you were promoted to be the Book Review’s editor. As far as they were concerned, you had been demoted!
Totally! I think I have the best job in the world, but I sometimes still think that the children’s editor has the best job; I do miss it, and I’m glad to be able to work closely with her. I think children’s books are in many ways the most important books, because it’s at that point that most of us become readers. Actually, I have a couple of children’s book ideas that I have promised my children I would write, and those might be in the future before anything else. They were a little irritated that “My Life With Bob” took precedence over these ideas that have long been promised to them!