Pamela Paul discusses the literary through-line that has defined her brilliant life as a writer and editor.
The name “Pamela Paul” sometimes awakens emotions in writers.
Fear! What if The New York Times Book Review, which she edits, eviscerates my novel?!
Bitterness! Who is she to serve as judge, jury and executioner of the literary masses today?!
Jealousy! Who don’t I have that job?!
But for all of the above, said complainants likely do not know about Bob—who we’ll get to in a moment—or Pamela Paul at large.
As Debbie Millman notes in this episode of Design Matters, in an upbringing that seems tailor-made for the career that would follow, Paul’s mother named her after the 18th-century book considered to be the first English-language novel, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. Moreover, Paul grew up in a home built in the 17th century … that had served as her town’s first library.
To this day, she recalls the first book that was hers, and hers alone: The Pocket Book. One wonders what it was about this tiny tome that sparked an all-encompassing lifelong literary hunger, nigh obsession—“passion” being too tame a word for the place that books hold in Paul’s life.
Unfortunately for Paul, when she was growing up books did not hold the elevated position in society that they do today. Reading was not a noble, intellectual pastime; rather, it was akin to watching TV—a pulp pursuit. Which was unfortunate for the perpetual reader. As was the fact that her consumption of books outpaced her parents’ ability to spend money on them for Paul and her seven brothers.
Pinging between her mother’s home in Long Island and her father’s on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Paul babysat. She folded sweaters in a store. Worked in a bakery. Even assembled catalogues in a South American import warehouse. All for one goal: to obtain more books. She’d pore over the opinions of the city’s literary critics, and hungered for titles receiving top marks.
And that brings us to Bob. In high school, Paul attended a summer program in rural France. Like most teens, she had failed to keep a consistent (and quality) diary, but she had brought a journal with her, nonetheless. After she finished reading Franz Kafka’s The Trial, she took it out, wrote “Book Journal” on its first page, and logged her premiere entry. And throughout her entire life, somehow, she has not stopped: After finishing a book, she logs the title, author and date in that same journal, her (now-a-bit-beat-up-and-rough-around-the-edges-but-still-kicking) Bob—her Book of Books.
Though she was seemingly on a predestined path, Paul strayed from it. At Brown, she studied history. She nearly worked at … Quaker Oats. And then, a book—of course it was a book—upended her life in a lucky, much-needed chaos. Thalia Zepatos’ A Journey of One’s Own: Uncommon Advice for the Independent Woman Traveler persuaded her to make a random move abroad, to Thailand. There, she taught at schools part-time. She explored the countries around her. She sought herself.
Later, arriving back in New York, she found work in marketing, and in 1988 she also found a husband. She followed him to London, and began doing some writing for The Economist—but just shy of their first anniversary, they divorced. Ironically, the pain of the relationship’s end would eventually lead to catharsis and, in 2002, Paul’s first personal contribution to the world of books that had defined her life: The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony, a work of nonfiction exploring the trend of childless marriages that expire before five years. Alongside the unexpected coining of a pop term in “starter marriage,” Paul found herself catapulted onto the talk show circuit, being asked about her personal life and her own failed marriage—even though she only mentioned her journey in the introduction to the book. She was now learning, in real time, the strange things that a life of reading, no matter how intense or devoted, cannot prepare one for as an author contributing to that history of letters.
Meanwhile, her starter marriage complete, she happily married again at 33, and around the time her first child was born, she got an invitation: to review The Lady and the Panda for The New York Times Book Review. Later, a friend asked her if she knew anyone who would be interested in being the Children’s Book Editor for the Review. She eventually realized that, yes, she did: It was her. A couple of years after accepting the gig, her life came full circle—the girl who knew the names of all the top critics in New York growing up was offered the ultimate position: editor of the Review, in charge of all of The New York Times’ book coverage.
Along the way, more books followed: Pornified, about the cultural toll of the industry; Parenting Inc., about the parenting industrial complex of products targeting those with new offspring; By the Book, a collection of her best New York Times Book Review interviews with authors.
With her latest book, the full circle in her life widens, deepens and multiplies. Paul has spoken before about how she adores books for the simple fact that they transport us, as readers, to myriad eras, locales and legends. She has dubbed books time machines. And her Bob is in many ways a time machine of her own life, a cipher. Perhaps she never knew until it was time to explore it; perhaps she always knew. But with its titles, names and dates, Bob was a memoir. Paul just needed to add some words to connect the dots. Thus was born My Life With Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, which The Economist deemed the book that she was put on Earth to write.
One gets the sense that given how deeply Paul loves books, it must be sort of akin to a spiritual endeavor for her to write them. In her work, and especially in My Life With Bob, she brings that care, that respect for the form, to the page, and truly delivers.
… Which may be to the ire, perhaps, of scribes whose books were not favorably embraced by The New York Times Book Review. Those with that aforementioned spot of fear, bitterness. Those who have not stepped back, assessed her life and career and realized that Paul is genuine. Many people take up flags for the sake of having flags to wave. Many seek to form passions simply for the sake of having passions; to have things to talk about on a stage or set; to have something to bandy about in books.
In Paul’s home, there are books everywhere. Her books. Her husband’s books. Books belonging to her kids. Paul even selected her Japanese platform bed because it can be used, well, to store more books.
Pamela Paul’s story is not one of wise branding. This love of books: It’s real. And it’s real in an era where so many things are not.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief
Books By Pamela Paul
My Life With Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues
By the Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life from The New York Times Book Review
Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships and Our Families
Parenting, Inc.: How the Billion-Dollar Baby Business Has Changed the Way We Raise Our Children
The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony