Coming out at this time of year, Pamela Paul’s memoir is reminiscent of a commencement speech, albeit book-length and one just as interesting for the parents as for the graduates. It is a blast to listen to an obsessive reader share her thoughts on books, her travels and travails. Bob is her lifelong companion and record, her Book of Books, the place she can note what she has read. It gives date of completion, and, because Paul tried to read books about the countries or cities she visits or lives, we deduce a sense of location. It is her book of memories then, a record of where she has been.
Paul was the single daughter born into a family of seven sons. Despite the expected in-house torture and rough-housing, her psyche remained remarkably intact, though her parent’s divorce may have had more effect than discussed here. She did emerge as a reader, an introvert, and from a young age wanted to write. In this book she has boldly decided to write about what she’s read in the context of her life, and astonishingly, it is interesting. We enjoy retracing her faltering steps as a burgeoning adult, in which she recalls with uncommon accuracy the embarrassed and confused feelings of a teen.
France plays a large role in Paul’s life. Although her American Field Service (AFS) experience in a small town in suburban France was not as she imagined, it set the table for her next visit and the one after that. Eventually she found a family in France that became a second home, a family that subsequently attended her weddings and met her children. This kind of close long-term relationship defines Paul, I think. We all have trajectories, but not all of us cultivate the path as we go so that it becomes personal, the impact felt on both sides.
Paul’s decision after college to go directly to Thailand without the usual scramble for underpaid work at home was prescient but daring. She’d not get another chance to see that part of the world with any depth, though the China portion of the trip gave me the screaming heebies. It sounded perfectly horrendous, completely uncomfortable, filled with sickness and incomprehension. The China trip was her father’s idea, and it never became hers. The unmitigated disaster of that trip reminds us that we have to own our journey, start to finish, for us to manage it with any kind of finesse.
There was a marriage that lasted a year. The utter heartbreak Paul experienced does not lacerate us: from the moment she begins to speak of her first husband we are suspicious. She is much too happy much too soon. Love is one thing. Blindness is another. In my mind I modify Thoreau to read: beware all enterprises that require giving up a large, rent-controlled flat in New York City...
"…the minute a subject veered from the fictional world, the private world, the secluded, just-us-on-top-of-the-mountain world, into the greater, grittier territory below, the nonfictional world, my husband and I had serious differences…Even when we each happily read those same books about the perfidy of man, we read them in opposite ways…this kind of book contested my essentially optimistic view of the world rather than overturned it…whereas for him, the world really was that bleak, and the books proved it."Here you have, folks, a political difference so profound it can break nations in two. Ayn Rand’s work became Paul’s personal standard for judging viewpoints. Paul admits--she who practically worships books--that she threw one of Ayn Rand’s books in the trash after reading it, so that no one else would be polluted by its ideas. I laughed. I did the same thing, though I contemplated burning it before I did. In my tiny garage-turned-apartment in New Mexico, I wrestled with Rand’s horrifying vision of a society of go-getters and decided that to burn her book would invest it with too much significance.
I loved reading about Paul’s poor dating experiences after that. She was inoculated against irrational exuberance after her divorce, but she still wanted intimacy. She manages to share with us chortle-inducing instances of “okay, I’ve had enough of that” with some of the men she met later. My favorite might be the time a boyfriend convinces her that he’d been to the Grand Canyon before and so can show her “the best way to see it.” Har-dee-har-har. This memoir is a great example of smart and funny, gifting us many moments of remembering our own worst histories and reinforcing for younger women coming along that our judgment may be the only thing separating us from a much worse time of it.
Pamela Paul is now books editor of The New York Times and no longer has to struggle to find the coin to buy a new book. She is the best kind of editor for all of us because she is has read widely and acknowledges the draw of genre fiction while communicating her admiration for the range of new nonfiction that helps us cope with our history and our future. She is also an interested and informed consumer of Children’s lit and Young Adult titles, which aids me immeasurably since these are not my specialty and therefore necessitate me seeking assistance from a trusted source.
Access to all there is out there comes with its own set of stresses, but Paul has extended her reach by asking some of the best writers in the country to read and review titles in the NYT Book Review, and to talk about their selections on the Book Review Podcast, available each week from iTunes as an automatic download. Her guests and her own considered opinions help to narrow the field for us.
This is a great vacation read, not at all strenuous, yet it is involving. Imagine the unlikeliness of the concept: an introverted reader and editor writes a book about her life…reading…and it is interesting! Totes amazeballs. It occurs to me that Goodreads is one big Bob. I’m so glad Paul put the effort in to share with us: big mistakes don’t have to be the end of the world. It depends what happens after that. See what I mean about commencement?
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