It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a great while a book comes along that seems to have been written just for you. It may be a book about some obscure hobby of yours that you figured no one else in the world cared about, or about some equally obscure figure from the past you imagined no one remembered (much less actually cared about) but you. And in the unlikeliest of all cases, it might be a book – imagine it now, a whole book – about some weird habit of yours that you seldom speak of in public. It is exactly that last possibility that happened to me with Pamela Paul’s My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues. Who knew there was another person in the world maintaining a decades-old list of every book they ever read?
Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, began keeping her Book of Books (the “Bob” referenced in this memoir’s title) in 1988 when she was just a high school junior. (As a point of reference, I began my own “Bob” in 1970, a few months before I turned twenty-one.) Paul describes Bob as “factory-made, gray and plain, with a charcoal binding and white unlined paper, an inelegant relic from the days before bookstores stocked Moleskine notebooks,” exactly the kind of non-descript little book, I suspect, guaranteed to remain forever safe from the prying eyes of outsiders.
In twenty-two chapters, each chapter carrying the title of one of the books listed in Bob, Paul exhibits just how precisely she is able to reconstruct segments of her past by studying Bob’s pages. Each of the books chosen for chapters of their own remind the author of where she was both “psychologically and geographically” when she first read them. By studying the list to see which books she read before and after the highlighted title, Paul can easily see whether the earlier books put her in the mood for more of the same or pushed her toward reading something very different. Too, if her reading choices moved in a new direction, she can quickly determine how long that new interest or trend lasted. And she confirmed something concerning one’s memory about which most avid readers will readily agree: Keeping a list of fiction read does very little to solidify the recall of characters or plot details – what it does do is provide a better understanding of changes in one’s own “character.”
My Life with Bob is an intimate look into the life of a woman who has made books and reading the central core of her life. She has had many roles during her life: student, daughter, wife, mother, etc., but I suspect that she takes equal joy in knowing that reader is an essential term others would use to describe who she is – and always has been.
Readers are a curious lot, and one of the things we are most curious about is what others are reading. We cannot resist browsing the bookshelves of those whose homes we visit, often altering our opinions (either upwardly or downwardly) about those being visited according to what we see on their shelves. We find ourselves straining to read the titles of books on shelves sitting behind pictures of celebrities and politicians because we know that people are more likely to reveal their true nature and level of curiosity by what they choose to display on their private bookshelves than by what comes out of their mouths. We can’t help ourselves; that’s the way we are.
If you are one of those people, you are going to love My Life with Bob because Pamela Paul is a kindred spirit who gets it.