Why we read and why you should keep a Book of Books

This week, I started (and finished) Pamela Paul’s most recent book, My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues. Paul is the current editor of the New York Times Book Review, and she’s proven to be an adept writer as much as a voracious and passionate reader. This book is for book lovers!

Each vignette is named after titles read during significant times in her life: growing up, college, traveling, marriage, children, the death of her father, and so on. She weaves each book with each memory; it’s entirely a sympathetic read, as a fellow book lover and keeper of a book of books myself, as well as entertaining. Paul is generous and insightful, compassionate and curious, as she shares some intimate details of her life (not all very flattering) as well as her thoughts on reading, writing, and, of course, books.

Paul examines the question (which I began exploring on an earlier post): Why does one read?

For each of us, there seemed to be one core need that drove us to read on. But it was more complicated than that. […]

Everyone experiences most of these urges at different moments, or during certain periods of our lives, which is why most good readers ready widely, even if they tend to go deep into one genre or another. And one’s primary reason for reading can shift over time, sometimes quite suddenly. […] It’s not exactly about escape. It’s about experiencing something I would otherwise never have the chance to experience.

[…] Books answer that persistent question, “What is that really like?” By putting you in the place of a character unlike yourself in a situation unlike your own, a good book forges a connection with the other. You get to know, in some way, someone you never would have otherwise known, to live some other life you yourself will never live.

Paul dives deeper into this question, for in the process of choosing what we read, we ultimately learn more about ourselves. This is her message to her readers and why she keeps a book of books, urging us to do so as well, even if not physically.

What better way to get to know [a person]? You could find out so much if you cold get a read on where other people’s curiosities lie and where their knowledge is found: what are you reading? And what have you read? And what do you want to read next? Not knowing the answers to these questions means you miss a vital part of a person, the real story, the other stories — not the ones in their books, but the stories that lie between book and reader, the connections that bind the two together. […] And the stories that bind readers to one another. Reading may be solitary, but in the aggregate books unite us. Stories allow us to share other people’s experiences communally — across schools, and cities, countries and languages.

[…] For each of us, the books we’ve chosen across a lifetime reveal not only our evolving interests and tastes, but also our momentary and insatiable desires, the questions we can’t stop asking, the failings we recognize in ourselves, at the time, and the ones we can see clearly only years later. We pass our lives according to our books — relishing and reacting against them, reliving their stories when we recall where we were when we read them and the reasons we did. Most people, I’m convinced, are not just searching for cocktail-party fodder when they ask what someone else is reading. They are trying to figure something out, to get to the bottom of him [or her!]. They are looking for clues.

[…] Nobody else on the planet has read this particular series of books in this exact order and been affected in precisely this way. Each of us could say the same about our respective reading trajectories. Even if we don’t keep a physical Book of Books, we all hold our books somewhere inside us and live as them. They become our stories.

Enjoy your weekend, readers!

xoxo M

[Photo: detail from Fire Opal (Grace Mutell), 1899 by Laura Coombs Hils (1859-1952). From the Museum of Fine Arts Boston Collection, Boston, MA. Link here.


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