'Times' Book Review Editor Shares Her Love Of Reading In 'My Life With Bob'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our next guest, Pamela Paul, is the editor of The New York Times Book Review and oversees book coverage at The Times, which is to say she's surrounded by books. This seems like a great job for someone who read so much as a child that by the age of 10, she asked repeatedly if she could get a job at her local library.
When Paul was 17, she decided to give up writing a diary and, instead, keep a list of all the books she read. She's been updating that list ever since. She calls it Bob, B-O-B, the acronym for her book of books. Now Pamela Paul has a new memoir about her lifelong relationship with books. It's called "My Life With Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book Of Books, Plot Ensues." She spoke with FRESH AIR's Sam Briger, who produces all our book interviews.
SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Pamela Paul, welcome to FRESH AIR. You say that over the years, revealing the fact that you had a Bob to other people could be a dicey proposition, that some people just didn't understand why you were writing down all the books you'd read.
PAMELA PAUL: Yeah, well, some people really didn't like the fact that I wasn't writing more than that. I remember one boyfriend in particular just thought it was worthless without sort of having an essay accompanying each entry about what the book meant to me and my personal reflections. And I felt terrible once he leveled that criticism. And I started keeping a book like that. And that book lasted for two entries. And the relationship didn't last much longer.
And then I wrote about this in The New York Times Book Review in 2012 in an essay on the back page. And the reactions I got were really interesting, and they kind of fell into three categories. One was, you know, wow, I wish I'd done that and sort of filled with regret that people hadn't done it. The second was that kind of a little bit annoyed that it wasn't something more than what it was. Then the third one was I do that, too. And, of course, those were the best.
And a lot of those responses came via email but also in snail mail. And some people sent in, you know, images from their own book of books.
BRIGER: That's interesting.
PAUL: Yeah. Nobody knew that anyone else did that kind of thing.
BRIGER: Yeah, so did you have trepidation about writing about it for The New York Times when you did?
PAUL: Oh, my God, are you kidding? Yes, Yes. Anyone can see it. And it's totally embarrassing because it includes things, you know, high-minded things like Faulkner and Joyce. But it also includes, like, a memoir by the roadie from "The Doors," you know, (laughter) and, like, really - real teenage fare.
BRIGER: You're not only a voracious reader but you also like the physical aspect of books. And, you know, of course at your position at The New York Times, you have access to a huge amount of free books. You write, (reading) like all collectors, I exist in a perpetual state of want that bears no reasonable relationship to the quantity of unread books mounting up on my shelves. How do you feel about having books on your shelves that you haven't read?
Does that stress you out?
PAUL: It doesn't stress me out in so far as I continue to believe - again, this might be naivete - but I believe that there is a future there for me when I'm done with everything, you know? Like, every box is checked off somehow and my days are now empty and all I get to do is read and watch movies. That's probably completely delusional. But I continue to have it. And that state of want and deprivation really stems from what I felt like was really book-bare environment growing up.
I just - my mother didn't - we didn't have a lot of books in the house growing up. Because we lived so close to the library, whenever I wanted a book, the answer was, you know, get it from the library. And I had a really meager allowance, even for the time. My allowance for a long time was a dime a week, which, you know, really doesn't go far...
BRIGER: Even in the '80s (laughter).
PAUL: Yeah, it doesn't take you much beyond, like, Tootsie Rolls. So getting a book was, like, a really big deal for me. And I would save up, as a child, to buy used "Nancy Drews" from a local used bookstore. And I think that was the moment - those were the books that made me really think of the book as an object because there are many different editions of "Nancy Drews," even at that time and there have been a bunch subsequent which, like, modernized the illustrations and whatnot.
But I only liked a particular version. To me, like, it's just without question the best. They have yellow bindings, yellow spines. I have talked to people who distain that particular (laughter) - those particular editions for the earlier blue ones. But the blue ones, to me, were too old. They were not in nice enough state when I was growing up. I wanted those yellow ones, and I did not want the modern paperback ones with the new, you know, sort of hipper illustrations. Those, to me, were just so completely subpar.
BRIGER: Well, let's talk about your job. You are the editor of The New York Times Book Review. And you also oversee book coverage for the entire paper. How is it decided what books get reviewed for the three permanent reviewers at the news organization?
PAUL: So there are two very different systems between the Sunday Book Review and The Daily critics. And they're kind of opposite in a way. With the critics, the chief critic is Michiko Kakutani. She gets the first crack at the books. And she really decides what it is that she wants to review. So you begin with the critic. With the Book Review assignments, we start with the book. And when we have a book, we are - one of the most creative things after deciding which books deserve a review or not, the next big decision - and this is one that I'm very involved in - is who should review it?
And that is a really interesting process. Sometimes we know or we're pretty confident that one of the critics will review it. So we know, OK, if Michi is going to review this book, what might we do that's different? If we think that there should be a second review, who should review it that would provide a different take? Maybe it is an established book critic, maybe it's a novelist or a poet. We had Bill Clinton review the fourth installment of Bob Caro's LBJ biography. We have had Patti Smith review a Murakami novel. Paul Simon reviewed Stephen Sondheim's memoir.
That's the part that's sort of the most delicious and creative because you just think, like, who would I most want to read on this book? And then also, who would New York Times readers most want to read on this book?
GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Pamela Paul, the editor of The New York Times Book Review and author of the new book "My Life With Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book Of Books, Plot Ensues." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Pamela Paul, the editor of The New York Times Book Review. She oversees book coverage at The Times. She's also the author of the new book "My Life With Bob."
BRIGER: How do you deal with a situation when you're looking at a book that has a particular political slant and you have to choose who to review it? Do you sometimes - like, you'd probably don't want to just choose someone who completely agrees with that - or on the other side, you don't want to deal with someone who's just going to be opposed to it.
PAUL: Yeah. That's - those are tough assignments. And I personally find them among the most challenging, but I think also among the most exciting and interesting because we don't believe in a set-up review where you sort of hire someone you know is going to do a takedown because they are on the other side. On the other hand, you don't want this sort of just sycophantic agree, agree, agree, you know, I-love-this-person-because-I-vote-the-same-way kind of review.
So we try to find people that we know are fair and independent-minded and able to assess a book on its merits. And, you know, what has become more difficult about that is that particularly in these highly partisan times, people are very much set in their, you know, own camps. And it's hard to find - I mean, there are certain reviewers that - people that we miss - I mean, Christopher Hitchens, for example, he reviewed a lot for us. And he's someone who just - he's irreplaceable as a writer, but - and as a critic. But you never kind of knew what his take would be because he so often was contrarian and surprising. Michael Kinsley is a bit that way. There are some critics out there who we don't know what they'll think, and so that's always interesting.
And in general, I would say - especially for fiction - we try to find someone who we think will be open to a book. We're not trying to find people who are going to take down a book because generally speaking, when we assign a book for review, we're doing that because we, the editors, think this is a book that's worthwhile. We think, you know, of all the books out there, and we assign, you know, only about 1 percent of those books published in a given year. Of all the books out there, this is one that matters. This is the one that is either a new voice or an author people care about or should know about.
BRIGER: Well, have you ever commissioned a review from someone and they send you back some sort of takedown and you find out afterwards that they have a personal conflict with the author?
PAUL: That has happened, and with luck we - I mean, we really do try to suss out any kind of conflict of interest beforehand. And it's not always possible, and certain people have different standards from our own on about what a conflict of interest may be. There are other publications - I won't name any - that, you know, we can see people reviewing books that we turn down as assignments because we felt there was a conflict of interest. And then we see it run elsewhere. So we know that not everyone has the same standards as The Times.
That's not to say that we don't make mistakes or that we don't find things out after the fact. And if we find out before the review runs, we'll kill it. And that's something that we never want to do because that's a lost opportunity then for that author. There are some books that never got reviewed because we found out that there was a conflict of interest, and by the time we found it out - sort of too late to reassign it elsewhere. And, again, it's pretty funny sometimes what people don't consider to be a conflict of interest. I've asked people to review something, and they've said, oh, I'd love to review that. I gave it a great blurb. And I'd be happy to write a full review which, of course, you know, you can't do or they share an agent.
There was one person - I mean, it was a pretty funny email, I have to say, in which they were like, oh, yes, you know, I totally could review this book. I did used to live with this person, but we're no longer sleeping together. And it's fine. I could, you know, completely, independently assess it, and that's a true story.
BRIGER: Well, what's your take on blurbs because we've had an experience here at least once where there was a positive blurb about a book by someone, and then we found out that it was taken completely out of context, and the person otherwise thought that the book was suspect?
PAUL: Oh, yeah (laughter). Well, you know, we can see blurbs from our own reviews - like, OK - the difference between blurbs and sort of the extractions from a review that you'll see on an ad, and, you know, you'll have like a really nasty negative review of a book. But they'll - there might be a sentence in which they say, you know, this is a pleasure in it's despicability or something. And then the quote will be a pleasure, you know, in the ad.
So, you know, there's a lot of creativity around that. But, yeah, there can be a whole thing about blurbs. At The Times - journalists at The Times are not allowed to blurb books, and I think that's for a good reason because it does end up posing a lot of conflicts of interests for us as writers and reporters and editors to sort of be publicly endorsing books before they come out.
BRIGER: So you write in your book that when you were asked to write your first book review - and I don't know if this was for the Economist or not - you handed it in, and your editor said something like, oh, dear, let me show you how to write a book review. So what did they teach you?
PAUL: The thing about a book review, it's a very particular form of writing, and not everyone knows how to write it. And one of the stunning things as an editor is to see many excellent writers, you know, whether they're a novelist or a poet hand in a book review and you're like, wait, what? You're such a good reporter or a novelist or short-story writer, like, how could you have handed in this thing?
You didn't even tell me, you know, whether the book was good or not. So there are a lot of different ways to write a book review. And you can write it very formulaically sort of ticking off all the things that you're supposed to do in a book review which is, you know, give a sense of what the book is about, but don't reveal too much of the plot, quote from the text so people can get a sense of what the writing is. You know, people want to know what the voice sounds like, how the, you know, sentences are structured, let people know - readers know what the author does well and what they don't do well.
If someone is coming out with a biography of Jefferson who has been written about before - there have been previous biographies of Jefferson - you want to know, well, why this biography of Jefferson? What did the historian or the biographer know or find - do - get research on that hasn't previously been uncovered? What kind of research did they do? Do they have a different argument? Is this a new assessment? You want to know about access for books that required, again, a lot of interviewing. Were they - if it's a biography of someone who is alive, did they have access to that person? Was it an authorized biography or not? And you want, as well, for something a little bit more ineffable which is you want to feel as a reader that the reviewer engaged with the work. You know? I hate something that feels like a phoned-in book report, and that's something, too.
A lot of people don't know the difference between a book report and a book review. And they don't know what a literary criticism is in a scholarly journal versus literary criticism in a newspaper book review. And so a lot of it is - you know, there are certain things to sort of tick off, and then there are certain ways to mess with that formula. I mean, one of my favorite book reviews was - that I edited - was by - a review by Michael Lewis of Timothy Geithner's memoir. And the first sentence was something like he's written a good book, let's get that out of the way.
You know, so right at the top, he's sort of telling you, like, this book is good. And you'd be amazed by how many reviewers, even reviewers who write a very positive review, are withholding of their praise. There are many instances in which someone hands in a book review, and you read it, and you think like, I can't tell if they like this or not.
But in the email, they're like this was such a wonderful book, thank you so much for assigning it. I loved X, Y and Z. And you think, well, why did you not say that in the book review? So those were a few of the things that I really did not know before I'd written a book review of my own.
BRIGER: Well, I know your husband is - following your lead and has his own version of Bob called Blob, which is the big list of books. Have your kids taken up their own lists?
PAUL: They have, but they don't keep it as well as I think they should. And I don't want to be too - I don't want to berate them for it because I think that keeping a book of books should be voluntary and a pleasure. To me, reading is something that you get to do, not something that you have to do. And I wish that schools and teachers and parents sort of thought of it more in those terms because I think that that's infectious.
And one of the things that we've done with our kids is, like, they have two bedtimes. So the early bedtime is like if you just want to go to bed, like, your bed time's, you know, 8 o'clock. But if you want to stay up and read in bed, you can stay up until 8:30.
And, you know, to me, like if someone had said that to me when I was a child, like, I think I would have passed out from happiness because, you know, when I was a kid, you, like, you went under your covers with a flashlight and read because you weren't supposed to do that. So I feel like I'm like, you know, reaching into the cookie jar for my kids and passing out the goodies.
BRIGER: Well, Pamela Paul, thanks for coming on FRESH AIR.
PAUL: Oh, thanks so much for having me.
GROSS: Pamela Paul spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Paul was the editor of The New York Times book review and author of the new book "My Life With Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book Of Books, Plot Ensues." After we take a short break, Ken Tucker will review new albums by Harry Styles and Dan Auerbach. This is FRESH AIR.
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