Pamela Paul: the importance of the page
Pamela Paul, editor of The New York Times Book Review, visited Hofstra University for the 15th Annual Great Writers, Great Readings series on Wednesday, Oct. 10. Co-sponsored by the Department of English, MFA in Creative Writing Program and Hofstra Cultural Center, the event was moderated by English professor Kelly McMasters and featured a question and answer session with Paul afterwards.
Paul spoke about her new book, a record of all the books she has read since high school, “My Life With Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues,” along with her relationship to books while growing up, the way reading as a hobby has changed in the public’s eye and how books affect one’s daily reality.
Paul writes that the idea for her book of books came from a distinct feeling of failure. “I was basically a failed teenage diarist,” she said. “I realized finally at the age of 17 that there was no sign of a budding writer here. I decided to keep a journal – not of what was going on in my life –but what was going in my life as I wanted to lead it and often as I frankly really was, which was in the world of books.”
Paul’s book of books, which she calls Bob, began then and extended throughout her college years as she explored texts from “Anna Karenina” to “Catch-22” and the ways in which life intersects with the written word.
“My Life With Bob” came partially from Paul’s work at The New York Times column, “By The Book,” a weekly feature of various authors, artists and other notable people’s reading lives.
Paul said, “The idea behind ‘By the Book’ was that you could tell the story of someone’s life through the books that they read; through the heroines that they admired in books, through the authors they cherished, through the books they couldn’t finish, through the genres they don’t like, through the authors they wanted to have dinner with.”
In the initial essay that helped to clarify the column’s purpose, Paul included a scanned excerpt from her own Bob, which eventually became a catalyst for the full publication of “My Life With Bob.” In her talk with McMasters, Paul expanded on the themes she wished to explore in the now-published book.
“I wanted to write about the space between the page and the reader, about the fact that what we read at any given moment in our lives affects us and where we are in our lives drives where we and how we read,” she said. “I wanted to write about all the questions that readers, real readers, ask themselves. Like, what should I be reading? Why is it ‘should I be reading?’ and are there books that one should read? Or is that question itself sort of at fault. What does it mean to be well-read? Is there a right way to read a book? Should a book improve you?”
Paul also spoke briefly on the difference between books and other storytelling mediums, like movies, delineating the range of active imaginary participation one must engage in as the key difference between books and their counterparts.
“I think one of the reasons books stay with us and are so powerful is that with other media you’re having so much of it created for you,” Paul said. “[For books,] you’re in there, you’re active, you’re creating that story, you’re part of that process. And I think that it’s because of that that books are so powerful and so enduring for all of us.”
Finally, in a question and answer session with the audience, Paul touched on the changing public perception of reading as a hobby.
In her own childhood, Paul noted, “Nobody said, ‘my child is a reader.’ That basically meant loser. Now we grow up in the era of helicopter parenting. Now I think people pride themselves on how much they’re reading or how much their child is reading.”
Elyse Guiecsice, an MFA candidate at Hofstra, said she valued the way in which Paul viewed books as an essential part of daily life.
“It was a lot of fun to hear from someone who’s so deep into this industry, but she still feels that way about books,” Guiecsice said.
Following the panel, McMasters said, “She is, very honestly, one of the most important women in publishing today, so just to have her here talking to our students and having them ask her questions about her books but also her day job was a real treat.”