My Life with Bob

Synopsis: (as told by the back of the book)

Imagine keeping a record of every book you’ve ever read.  What would this reading trajectory say about you?  With passion, humor, and insight, the editor of The New York Times Book Review shares how stories have shaped her life.

Pamela Paul has kept a single book by her side for twenty-either years – carried throughout high school and college, hauled from Paris to London to Thailand and from job to job, safely packed away and then carefully moved from apartment to house to its current perch on a shelf over her desk.  It is reliable if frayed, anonymous looking yet deeply personal.  This book has a name: Bob.

Bob is Paul’s Book of Books, a journal that records every book she’s ever read, from Sweet Valley High to Anna Karenina, from Catch-22 to Swimming to Cambodia.  It recounts a journey in reading that reflects her inner life – her fantasies and hopes, her mistakes and missteps, her dreams and her ideas, both half-baked and wholehearted.  Her life, in turn, influences the books she chooses, whether for solace or escape, information or sheer entertainment.

But My Life with Bob isn’t really about those books.  It’s about the deep and powerful relationship between book and reader.  It’s about the way books provide each of us the perspective, courage, companionship, and imperfect self-knowledge to forge our own path.  It’s about why we read what we read and how those choices make us who we are.  It’s about how we make our own stories.

Morgan’s thoughts:

This is a fascinating concept for the structure of a memoir (and probably pretty similar to how mine would read based off of the sheer number of hours I spend reading).  Each chapter introduces a book and an event – something that happened in Paul’s life as she was reading that particular book.  

I was disappointed that this book was more of a traditional memoir than I had hoped for.    Each chapter is mainly an explanation of a specific time in Paul’s life.  She often waits until the end of the chapter to tie in the novel mentioned in the title of the chapter.  The tie in is sometimes no more than a statement of what she was reading at the time.  If it were me, I would have included fewer life events and dedicated more of the book to connecting each work mentioned to my life.  How are certain themes or characters reflected in the world around me?  Did an interaction or a conversation change my thoughts on a particular book?  How so? So many of the books she mentioned were classics and, let’s be real, all of the audience for this novel is made up of readers.  Why not engage them with the material we all have in common.

However, Paul is clearly a lover of literature and so am I (surprise, surprise, I know) and there were many sentences I raced to underline.  She described sensations I have every day but have never put into words.  Here are a few that I completely adored – I’ve included them here in the hopes that you will identify with them as well.

  1. On readers as collectors: “I wanted to own more such things, a desire that remains unabated, even in my current state of plenty.  If I pass a bookstore, I want to go in.  When I see an especially sweet local library, my heart swells.  Used bookstores contain untold possibilities.  Library sales, same thing.  There is always room for more books, even though I’ve barely dented the piles I already have.”
  2. On the vicious cycle of being a reader: “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.”
  3. On a love of the classics: “While some people feel pressure to read the latest novel, my particular neurosis has always been to catch up on writers who died long ago yet endure still.  Their words had achieved a kind of permanence; they mattered.”
  4. On the timing of books: “Sometimes it takes a book to jolt you out of where you are.  It doesn’t have to be a great book.  Just the right book at the right moment, one that opens something up or exposes you to something new or somehow forces you to reexamine your life…”
  5. On reading while traveling alone: “The worst part was that I loved traveling independently and reading while I did it.  Most of the time, I didn’t feel lost or lonely.  Quite the opposite – with a truly engrossing novel, you could feel found.  Reading may not always give you full access to the world around you, but it’s an entry to another world and the company of the people inside it.  It’s possible to explore two worlds at once.”
  6. On judging someone by their books: “What someone reads gives you a sense of who they are.  If you really don’t like someone’s nooks, chances are you probably won’t like them either.”
  7. On making mistakes in judging someone by their books: “…you might not always agree with everything you read, and isn’t that part of the point of reading, anyway?  We can misjudge each other by our book titles, too.”
  8. And, finally, on falling in love with someone through books: “It just seemed that if I were going to get involved with someone and he were going to get involved with me, he should get a sense of what moved me on the page.”

A final thought: I took serious issue with one chapter of this book and that was chapter 11.  In this chapter, Paul addresses a four week period in which she starved herself because she was inspired by a novel.  This chapter significantly ignores the danger in this statement and hardly addresses mental health and eating disorders.  Instead, it treats that dangerous choice as a naive lark.

Interested in this book?  Click here to buy it on Amazon or find it at your local bookstore!

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