Why Keep Track?

Like anyone else with a marriage and a home and children and family and work, and more work, I always have something to worry about. And if for some inexplicable reason, I don’t have anything to fret over, I will easily find it. Should it be resolved at 4:16 a.m. one sleepless night, it will swiftly be replaced with something new. I am, alas, a worrier.

Through practice, I’ve become pretty good at it. I can toggle efficiently among a range of potential threats, even as I blanch or shudder at various imagined catastrophes: the satanic undertow out of nowhere. The chairlift that inexplicably derails. The child who tumbles down the stairs, me careening just a moment too late after. We won’t even mention air travel.

And of course there’s the old standby, something most of us have pictured at one point or another: The house on fire. Everything bursting into flames. Only moments to decide what to save beyond children, spouse, small animals. Do I grab the birth certificates, the tax backup, the passports—if only to spare myself the paperwork? Do I go with the valuable or with the irreplaceable? My grandmother’s ring, my poorly collected letters, the computer in case the cloud evaporates?

I wouldn’t bother with any of those things. In my heart, I know that were everything burning to ashes at my feet, I’d leave behind the laptop and the photo albums and even, forgive me, my children’s artwork, because there is one object I’d need to rescue above all else—my true precious, Bob.

Bob isn’t a pet or a teddy bear, though he does hold sentimental value and has been with me since my school days. Unimaginatively abbreviated, BOB is 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. Because if I didn’t write it all down, I worry (naturally), I would forget it.

He’s nothing fancy, this Book of Books of mine. He isn’t hand woven by artisanal craftsmen from a Himalayan village or decoratively embossed. No, he is factory-made, gray and plain, with a charcoal binding and white unlined paper, an inelegant relic from the days before bookstores stocked Moleskine notebooks, before blogging and scrapbooking and “journaling” as a verb. Within his covers lies a running account of authors and titles, which I dutifully enter upon the completion of every book I read. After around twenty books or so, when I remember to put it there, a vague date breaks up the catalog.

I first wrote about Bob, with no small amount of trepidation, in an essay for the New York Times Book Review in 2012. Further exposing myself, I allowed the text to be accompanied by a photograph of Bob’s first page, displaying to millions of strangers my early stabs at depth and intellectualism, fleeting girlish obsessions, deliberately obscure annotations, and all. I had revealed my inner life in a very public way, but at least, I reasoned, I’d done so in a safe place, among fellow readers. As soon as the Book Review’s art director scanned in the appropriate page, I recovered Bob from the seventh-floor art department and spirited him safely back home. He hasn’t left since.

My Book of Books is still a private place. It’s not a traditional diary, to be sure. It’s about me, and yet it isn’t about me. It’s impersonal and yet deeply personal. And in my case, it has worked better than a “real” diary, that basic prerequisite for anyone who fancies herself a future writer. Bob has lasted a lot longer than any of my abandoned teenage journals—I write in it still—and here’s why: diaries contained all kinds of things I wanted to forget—unrequited crushes and falling-outs with friends and angsting over college admissions. Bob contains things I wanted to remember: what I was reading when all that happened.

Now in his middle age, Bob offers immediate access to where I’ve been, psychologically and geographically, at any given moment in my life. How I decided on a certain book. What I’d read previously that had either put me in the mood for more of the same or driven me toward something different. Was I in a Civil War stage or up for a good spy novel? Had I read the author previously and, if so, when? Why had I left him and what drew me back? Bob may not always seal into memory the identities of individual characters—much of that is still lost in the cavern—but he does tell me more about my character.

Each entry conjures a memory that may have otherwise gotten lost or blurred with time. Opening Bob, I remember lying in a dormitory in Mauriac, an unspectacular hamlet in central France where I was installed on an American Field Service program, when I wrote my first entry: The Trial, fittingly, an unfinished work. This summons a flood of attendant recollections: seeing Baryshnikov perform in Metamorphosis, on Broadway, which led me to the paperback Kafka I packed with me that summer—an entire swath of Sturm und Drang adolescence reemerges from the fog of those other things I’d rather forget.

The immediacy of these recollections often startles me. Whereas old diaries later read like transcribed dreams—Who wrote that? Was it really me who got so worked up/wanted that guy/obsessed about X?—book titles easily and accurately manage to evoke an earlier state of mind. Yes, I think, reading over the entries: I remember that. I remember that book jacket, that edition, the feel of those pages. For a girl who often felt like she lived more in the cozy world of books than in the unforgiving world of the playground, a book of books was the richest journal imaginable; it showed a version of myself I recognized and felt represented me.

Over the years, Bob has become an even more personal record than a diary might have been, not about my quotidian existence but about what lay at its foundations—what drove my interests and shaped my ideas. There’s where I was physically, sitting in the cat-wallpapered room I’d ambitiously decorated in the second grade or at a leftover table in the high school cafeteria—and then there was where I lived in my mind, surrounded by my chosen people, conversing with aplomb in carefully appointed drawing rooms or roaming in picturesque fashion across windswept English landscapes.

Today my life is engulfed in books. Built-in shelves line my bedroom, adjacent to my Japanese platform bed, purchased for its capacious rim, the better to hold those books that must be immediately accessible. Yet still they pile on my nightstand, and the grid of shelves continues in floor-to-ceiling formation across the wall, stampeding over the doorway in disorderly fashion, political memoirs mixed in with literary essays, Victorian novels fighting for space with narrative adventure, the Penguin classics never standing together in a gracious row no matter how hard I try to impose order. The books compete for attention, assembling on the shelf above the sofa on the other side of the room, where they descend by the window, staring back at me. As I lie in bed with another book, they lie in wait.

The books don’t stop there. They gather on a coffee table in front of that sofa, and in my home office, where they mount according to intended destination—books to donate to my kids’ school, books to give to the local library, books meant for my husband, my mother, my in-laws in California, one of my three children. They fill up totebags that loiter by the staircase, ready to be hauled onto the train, commuting back and forth, some making the return trip, others staying on.

In my office at the New York Times Book Review, they are greeted by like-minded company. Books of interest, books with a purpose, books that are there for a reason. A shelf in front of my desk contains books I may want to refer to someday, by authors who’ve piqued my interest, or who are worth considering as potential reviewers for our pages, or whose work has already been praised. Books to be read, books to be read, books to be read. Books that may one day make their way into Bob.

When I come home and look back through my Book of Books I see a personal narrative I didn’t recognize at the time. I went from escaping into books to extracting things from them, from being inspired by books to trying to do things that inspired me—many of which I first encountered in stories. I went from wishing I were like a character in books to being a character in my books. I went from reading books to wrestling with them to writing them, all the while still learning from what I read.

The prospect of losing Bob has become more vexing as he and I have gotten older. I no longer take him on trips. Now he stays safely at home and I tend to his pages as soon as I unpack, logging in the books read on planes and trains and between meetings. With each entry, I grow more guarded about his contents. I feel as protective of Bob as I do of myself.

Though I thought he’d have long been filled by now and succeeded by a second book, there is still only one of him. He is less than half full, almost exactly mirroring my place in expected life span. He still has so much work to do, so many pages to fill. Yet after nearly three decades, Bob is showing his age. I am sometimes careless with him, which I then feel guilty about. A decade ago I unthinkingly repeated a full one-hundred sequence in error; much scratching out followed. I write entries hurriedly, while standing up, underlining the titles in wavy, discordant lines. His pages betray a certain amount of misuse. At some point, I spilled coffee on him; the cover is mottled and discolored, the binding has split, one corner is woody and bare. He sits on a special shelf, right over my desk, the anonymity of his unappealingly frayed spine ensuring our privacy.

Without Bob, something feels worryingly missing—missing from my life and from the accounting of my life. A book is somehow not quite read, and my own story doesn’t quite make sense, the two inextricably linked. I don’t know where I’d be without Bob and where I’d have been if he hadn’t been there. Bob may be a record of other people’s stories, but he’s mine. If there’s any book that tells me my own story, it’s this one.

Copyright © 2017 by Pamela Paul. Excerpted from My Life With Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues

My Life with Bob cover
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Pamela Paul is the editor of The New York Times Book Review and the author of By the Book; Parenting, Inc.; Pornified; and The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony. Prior to joining the Times, she was a contributor to Time magazine and The Economist, and her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Slate, and Vogue.