Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Rebecca Foster on Pamela Paul’s ‘My Life with Bob’

By Rebecca Foster

What are your favorite books about books? Why are these books such a ferocious pleasure? Maybe it's their range: books on books can combine memoir and criticism (see Rebecca Mead's 'My Life in Middlemarch' or Janet Malcolm's 'Reading Chekhov'), history and sociology (Alberto Manguel's 'A History of Reading'), humor, travelogue, astute observation, and who knows what else (Elif Batuman's 'The Possessed'). Tell us about your favorite for the latest installment of the NBCC Reads series, which draws upon the bookish passions of NBCC members and honorees  and is curated by Alan Cheuse Emerging Critic Natalia Holtzman. (The series dates back to 2007; you can explore the archive here.) Submissions can be 500 words or fewer and should go to





What could be better than a bibliomemoir? As a bibliophile I’m irresistibly drawn to books about books, but as a critic I often find them unsatisfying. Plot summary, filler and spoilers seem all too common. An author might concentrate on obscure books that mean a lot to him or her, dissecting their plots without truly conveying a sense of their personal or potentially wider appeal. The trick is always to find the universal in the particular, and vice versa.

Pamela Paul, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, does this perfectly. In 1988, when she was a junior in high school, she started keeping track of her reading in a notebook she dubbed “Bob,” her Book of Books. In her 2017 memoir, 'My Life with Bob,' she delves into Bob to explain who she was at various points in time and how her reading both reflected and shaped her character. While she discusses specific books, the focus is unfailingly on their interplay with her life, such that each book mentioned more than earns its place. So whether she is hoarding castoffs at her bookstore job, obsessing about ticking off everything in the Norton Anthology, despairing that she’s run out of reading material in a remote yurt in China, or fretting that her (ex-)husband takes a fundamentally different approach to Thomas Mann, Paul always looks beyond the books themselves to interrogate what they say about her.

I had a couple of favorite moments – “Les Prunes de Fureur,” a Steinbeck-themed verbal gaffe from her study abroad year in France; and an excellent takedown of Ayn Rand’s 'The Fountainhead'– but I suspect each bookish reader will find different incidents and passages to love. This is the sort of book I wish I had written, not least because Paul explains more precisely and succinctly than I could why I’m drawn to depressing books, how I use reading to understand experiences I may never have, and why the books we bring along on our travels take on special relevance in our minds. If you have even the slightest fondness for books about books, you mustn’t miss this one.

An American transplant to England, Rebecca Foster is a full-time freelance editor and writer. Her book reviews regularly appear in many print and online locations on both sides of the Pond, including the Times Literary Supplement and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, as well as on her blog, Bookish Beck.My