For some, reading is something done when there’s nothing else to do or only when it’s required.
For others, like Pamela Paul, it’s quite the opposite.
Paul, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, is a longtime reader. Growing up on Long Island, her love of books started from an early age. When she was 17, she started keeping track of what she read in a Book of Books, which she nicknamed Bob.
The editor and author of “How to Raise a Reader,” “My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues,” and several others will return to the Capital Region on Thursday. She’ll be in conversation with Elizabeth Sobol, the president/CEO of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in a discussion titled “My Life in Literature.”
The Gazette caught up with Paul last week to talk about how her Book of Books began and some of her favorite books she’s read this year.
Q: Looking back, what book or books really got you into reading when you were a kid?
A: It’s very hard to narrow it down to just a few, but there were a few pivotal moments in terms of books that really hooked me. One was a cloth book, which [was] really rare in those days. To my mind, it was called “The Pocket Book,” and it was an interactive book for toddlers. Nowadays there are tons of these and they’re made much more cheaply abroad but to my mind, this was like this precious little book that was basically to teach kids how to do things like buttons and zippers and snaps. Each page was a different pocket that you would enclose yourself. I just remember having this object, thinking it was like this treasure and wanting to crawl into one of the pockets and stay there. That was the first time I really thought of a book as something that was so important to me.
What’s really funny is I didn’t remember the specifics of the book but to my mind, it was really beautiful. But when I wrote about this particular book actually in my last book “My Life with Bob,” I was doing a reading at the Harvard Book Store and someone afterward said to me “I had that same book and here’s a photo.” They went to show me the photo and it was so upsetting because the book was actually called “The Fisher-Price Pocket Book for Girls.” It was this branded, really ugly book. It goes to show those memories that we have from childhood with books, they’re so special. You even imagine it better than it was.
I think [like] many readers, [I enjoyed the] “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” That moment in the closet where the coats turn into trees is just a perfect metaphor for what a fantasy book does or any book that is a fantasy for a child does.
I didn’t know until adulthood that it was a series. No one ever bought me the other books. I thought it was just one. So I didn’t read the rest of the series until I was an adult and I could read them to my own kids. [It was] one of those great instances that you have as a parent where you rediscover or discover books from your childhood in new ways.
Then I would say, also, “A Wrinkle in Time” because the lead character in that, Meg Murry, was a character that I felt like was believable. I could imagine myself being that character. She was identifiable in my world because she wasn’t perfect.
Lastly, I was obsessed with biography as a child and there was one series, in particular, I wanted to read every volume. They were on this back wall in the children’s library where I grew up. I read those biographies almost as a form of self-help, like as a guide. For me, it was a way of figuring out “This is how people got from where I am now to adulthood. This explains the steps.” Without that, I wouldn’t really know. “How do you get to be Eleanor Roosevelt? How do you get to be Abigail Adams?” The crazy thing, of course, was back then for girls, the only female biographies were nurses and first ladies, although there was Helen Keller. Helen Keller, to me, walked on water. In a way, it was sort of therapeutic because if Helen Keller could deal with what she was dealing with, I could get through whatever I had to struggle through because it was nothing compared to what she had to handle.
Q: You’ve been keeping track of all the books that you’ve read since you were a teenager. Why do you think you started keeping track?
A: Like any child who wants to be a writer, I knew that I had to keep a diary. The characters in Judy Blume novels kept diaries, Anne Frank obviously kept a diary, Jo March, [etc.] So you know that you have to be writing and I was really bad at keeping a diary. I generally was very sporadic about it. I tried everything. I tried to write “Dear Kitty,” I tried to do everything that heroines in books did. It didn’t matter because the prose was always really bad. I had thought when writing them that someday they would be worth something, mean something to readers. But then when I would look back on them even a few days later I would just be horrified by the banality of what was going on in my life and the bad prose in which it was written. Eventually, I decided that I would rather write about good prose and what I felt like was really going on in my life in a way, which wasn’t necessarily what was happening in the day to day of the classroom or the schoolyard but was really about where I was in my head, which was often in a book.
So I bought a blank book and I brought it with me one summer. It was my first summer leaving the country. I did the American Field Service Program to France and I brought that along and wrote in the first book, which was “The Trial” by Kafka. I reproduced the first page of my Book of Books in “My Life with Bob,” which is kind of embarrassing because it still is my diary. It still feels very personal. But people thought, “Well, why don’t you put in the whole book? You should have posted all of your Bob online.” That would be the last thing I would do because it is incredibly personal.
Q: Do you have a back-up Bob?
A: I don’t. Isn’t that insane? When I was working on “My Life with Bob,” I scanned the whole thing but since then I haven’t. I know it seems insane. But I keep him at home because he’s really delicate. I only took him out one time. Jeffrey Toobin, the CNN legal commentator and best-selling author and writer for The New Yorker, did a By the Book interview in which he alluded to a book of books that he kept. He did this before “My Life with Bob” came out and I thought “You’ve stolen my thunder, Jeffrey Toobin.” I had to interview him on a panel and I mentioned [my book] and he said: “Send it along.” Then he had this fun idea which was that we should go out to lunch and each bring our book of books and compare them. I was like “That is the last thing I want to do because you’re going to have read so many more books than I. I’m sure you’re a faster reader and they’re going to be more impressive. Also, it’s just embarrassing.”
But I agreed to it. We went to lunch and we brought our Bobs and it was funny because we both started keeping our Bobs the same year. His Bob was begun by his father and when his father died he picked up that same book and continued it himself, which I thought was really beautiful. But we did this the same year, which was 1988.
The other amazing thing was [that] we had a lot of overlapping book tastes.
That’s the only other time that I’ve let Bob leave the house because Bob is old and he’s falling apart. Before I took him out that day I had to tape him.
Q: Are there plenty of pages for more entries?
A: There’s still lots of space, which is both reassuring and upsetting. I am a slow reader. I also write really small. I don’t want to have to go to another book. It would feel wrong; one book, one life. But then it does become creepy. What if I fill up the last page and die? I hope not.
Q: Throughout your life, you’ve done a lot of traveling. How do you feel like your travels influenced your reading?
A: I think that for most people travel and books can be inextricably linked. We tend to remember where were when we read a book. So I do think there’s something about being displaced physically and reading that becomes embossed in your memory.
The other thing about traveling, especially the kind of travel that I did, which was very, very low-budget and often on my own, [is] that the books that I had access to were really limited. So these were books of circumstance. I only read that because I had nothing else to read, there was nothing else that I had access to. When I was living in northern Thailand in the early ‘90s and traveling around, I really had very little money. I was living bare-bones and books were expensive especially English language books. Most of the books that I got ahold of were either given to me or left behind in a guest hostel. Even the book choices themselves were dictated by where I was.
Q: Can you tell me about where the idea for your newest book “How to Raise a Reader” came from?
A: This is a book that I just felt like I had to write. It was like a mission. I have three kids. I came to the New York Times as the children’s book editor. I believe so strongly that reading children’s books makes us readers and that what makes us readers, makes us human.
I do believe that many parents feel the same way. People know that they want to raise readers. They know that reading is important in terms of cognitive function, in terms of academic success, but also [in terms of] emotional and social development and executive function.
At a very base, books make us human and books make life better. I, like many other parents, really wanted my kids to be readers but I didn’t necessarily know how. This is the book that I wished I had when I was pregnant.
I wanted to also answer all those questions that parents would come to me [with].
Q: What are some of the best books you’ve read this year so far?
A: Two new ones that I read that I thought were really excellent were Julia Phillips' “Disappearing Earth,” and Ted Chiang's "Exhalation." Two older ones [are] Thomas Hardy’s “The Mayor of Casterbridge” and Ling Ma's “Severance,” which came out in 2018.
“My Life in Literature: an Intimate Conversation”
WHEN: Starting at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday
WHERE: Spa Little Theater and Hall of Springs at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center
TICKETS: $85, which includes breakfast and lunch as well as admission to the presentation and to the mini-boutique shopping event which includes more than 20 local shops.
MORE INFO: visit spac.org or call Seth Buono 518-584-9330 ext. 101
Schedule of events:
9:30 a.m. - Coffee and tea at the Spa Little Theater
10:00 a.m. - Presentation at the Spa Little Theater
11:30 a.m. - Boutique shopping in the Hall of Springs
1:00 p.m. - Luncheon in the Hall of Springs