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Editor's Choice: 'My Life With Bob'

My Life With Bob by Pamela Paul, Henry Holt, 142 pages, $27.

It is a confession of no small deficiency to admit that one of the last places on this earth I expected to find conspicuous public whimsy is in the current editor of the New York Times Book Review and, indeed, the Maharini of all New York Times book coverage.

But there it is, big as life and just as brazen on the dust flap of this book whose full title and subtitle is "My Life With Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues."

Our author here is Pamela Paul, the Times Book Editor who describes the "Bob" in her life as "My Book of Books, a bound record of everything I've read or didn't quite finish reading since the summer of 1988, my junior year in high school. It's my way of keeping track." And very much what a book-besotted young teen might do. She goes on to refer to her "Bob" by name frequently, something she's been doing since first writing about "him" in the TBR in 2012.

At this point, one could easily imagine the more hidebound readers of the TBR rolling their eyes at millennial hegemony and imagining the return of such great TBR editors as Francis Browne and John Leonard.

As her book section would certainly tell you, once one gets to the meat of the meal, she’s on much safer ground. She’s writing about the books in her life and, at the same time, the life surrounding them. A lot of interaction there, from the time in fourth grade when reading Judy Blume’s “’Forever’ felt like breaking the law with every turn of the page” to her final reflections on Ben MacIntyre’s “A Spy Among Friends.”

Things turn far less cutesy and there's no small charm, for instance, to her social encounter with Christopher Hitchens, the man who once "helped me take down Paul Johnson." So too is she impressed with herself for emailing Salman Rushdie "the man who once opened me up to global literature." Such ingenuousness is verboten in many book places but I don't see why it should be. Much of it is  a good deal more charming and substantive and less solipsistic than it might sound. Reading "Flashman" on a vacation was enough to make her dump her boyfriend, a "Flashman" fan. There are, after all, myriad ways for books to be useful to us. In the words of Marvin Mudrick "books are not life but then what is?"


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