PAMELA PAUL Design Matters Interview Transcript Part II

Published on 2018-05-05

Similar to last week's episode, because of the length of this episode, the essay and transcript are in separate posts. There is no charge for the transcript posts, please don't worry about the numerous notificatons. DRIP has a limit to how many characters can appear in each post, and the length of this podcast meant we needed to break it up into three parts! I hope you enjoy this episode.


Debbie:  After spending a couple of years in that role, you became the editor of The New York Times Book Review proper. You've really breathed new life into this section. It's a very, very lively, spirited section now. You have a podcast as well. You also wield a tremendous amount of power over the literary world. Was it daunting at first?

Pamela:  It wasn't actually daunting. A couple of things were very useful in terms of inuring me to some of the vagaries of being in a position where at any given moment, 90 percent of the writers out there are really angry at you, or disappointed in you, or resentful, which is that I had written books. I had had my books reviewed. My books had not all been positive reviews.

I'd been through that. I'd understood what's personal and what's not personal. I had also seen Sam Tanenhaus, who was a really great mentor to me in many ways, go in that role and then out that role. I realized whoever is sitting in that chair, it's not about you, it's about that position of power. You can't personalize it.

It's interesting when you're a freelancer, you're looking at the world through your own selfish lens and you think, "I have all these friends who are editors. Why don't they just give me these assignments?"

You're not looking at it from their perspective, which is they're trying to find the exact right person for this. They have to make their editorial decisions independent of friendship and any kind of interest that they might have.

You know that you have a responsibility, but you also have this mission, which is ultimately not to authors, and not to publishers, although of course, you want to support what they do, but to our readers.

You're constantly thinking about what can we best do to serve our readers, and to meet our readers' needs, and to open them up to new literary works, but also to provide assessments of the important books that are out there?

Part of that is negative reviews. Part of that is not reviewing everything. It's a job of curation. To do that job well, you have to take yourself out of it a little bit.

I would say the one way in which my own personal experience as a writer has really helped in that role is that I know how much work it is to write a book, and I know how much heart you can put into it, and how terrible it feels if it's a negative review.

I do try to be respectful of the amount of work that it requires on the part of the authors and everyone in the editorial process who works to support that author's work.

One of the reasons why we have so much responsibility at The Times, which is both fortunate and unfortunate, is that so much of the media, and particular newspapers, have cut back on their book review coverage.

There are fewer players in the world, and what you do might end feeling much weightier in a way than it might have 30 years ago when you had a book that would come out, you'd get 15, 30 reviews around the country. That's no longer the case.

Debbie:  I believe The Times is the last daily paper with a free‑standing book section.

Pamela:  It is. "The Washington Post" folded "Book World" into "Outlook" in 2008. Before that, "The San Francisco Chronicle" folded its free‑standing book review section in 2005. Both papers still do include books covered, but you just don't have...I can see it with my own books.

My first book came out in 2002 and I would get lots of local papers around the country had a staff book critic. Now, very few of them do. I feel lucky to be somewhere like The Times where we have three full‑time staff critics, where we have a full‑time staff dedicated to running the book review, as well as running news, and features, and a publishing reporter.

We're the only paper‑owned magazine in the country or news magazine at least to have a full‑time children's books editor, which I think is very important because those are the books that turn every adult. Every adult who is a reader started with those books. It is a lot of responsibility, but it's one that I feel good about carrying out.

Debbie:  What goes into the makings of good criticism?

Pamela:  So many things. It's funny, it's easier to talk about what a bad book review is than a good book review. At heart, a good book review is a good piece of writing, first of all. It should inform and entertain. It should be not just a guide to should I read this or should I not.

A good book review, to me, is not one that has a thumbs‑up or thumbs‑down, or a star system, or anything like that, but one that is an engaging piece of writing in and of itself.

To get that, you need a critic who can engage with the work on an emotional level, or an intellectual level that somehow, you are getting a sense of this reader took this book seriously and thought about it in a way that assessed it for what it is, and again, that review then is worth reading and of itself.

Debbie:  How do you deal with criticism of the criticism of your section's criticism?

Pamela:  Wow, meta‑question there.

Debbie:  [laughs]

Pamela:  There should be a discussion. Book criticism is an interesting area. All art criticism in a way is that it's not a news report, who, what, when, where, why, although you should have that in your book review somewhere. It's not an opinion piece. It's not an op‑ed.

You come to it not objectively. You can't come to anything objectively in a book review, because every reader has their own interpretation of a book. It's often very different, frankly, from the writer's intent.

It's good when a book review starts to be...What's not good is, you can disagree with a book reviewer or with a critic, but you shouldn't have to distrust that critic.

For that reason, we are vigilant about fact checking, about guarding against conflicts of interest. You can't review someone in the book review whom you've already reviewed in the book review. Writers who are very prolific, like Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates are our challenge, because no one who has ever reviewed those authors for The Book Review can review them again.

It's a little bit different if you're a daily critic. Again, you're not getting an independent assessment because that doesn't exist, but you're getting a fair assessment.

Debbie:  I want to talk a bit more about your own literary portfolio. "Pornified," the book you released in 2005, was a thoughtful and important look at the industry and its cultural impact. What led you to wanting to explore this particular subject?

Pamela:  It's funny, because everyone wants to hear some dark and stormy, I guess that's a funny word to use these days, but some dark, personal tale that I had, when in fact I approached this book as a journalist. I had written about the subject for "Time Magazine," where I was a contributor at the time.

We were doing a sex issue. It was one of those things where I came a little bit late on board and many topics were taken.

I had thought about...There was this new phenomenon ‑‑ this is 2003 ‑‑ of the Internet with pornography and that I think that it's changing the way in which people consume pornography.

It wasn't really about the industry so much as it was about the consumer and about how having a ubiquitous, easily accessible, often free exposure to pornography at any moment of the day, including in the office and the kinds of pornography out there.

That radical shift that the Internet caused, of how that was affecting the people who used it, whether they were users themselves or people who were in a relationship with someone who was consuming a lot of pornography or the child of someone who was a frequent pornography user or maybe just an occasional pornography user or kids who saw it themselves at a young age and how that affected people.

I did that story for Time. It being a story for Time, I think it was somewhere between 1,200‑1,800 words. There was a lot I couldn't get into that amount of space, but there was also a lot of content that wasn't really well‑suited for Time magazine.

I felt like to write honestly and really to write about it, it was very critical that you call it for what it is. To say something like "sexually explicit images" really didn't convey something like women having their necks physically wrenched back while being choked with semen and crying during the experience and having this done in a way that was supposed to be intentionally sexually arousing.

You can't write that in Time Magazine and I felt like you couldn't therefore convey the essence of what was going on.

Debbie:  How do you feel now about the range of pornography there is, the preponderance of porn culture, and the effect that it's having on the way that we have sex?

Pamela:  What's interesting right now is that there isn't as critical an examination of it at the same time that you have a real, thorough reexamination of other sexual relationships with regard to power and power imbalance because of the #MeToo movement.

You say, "Well, it's not fair for there to be this power imbalance and this objectification and this kind of harassment in the workplace, but then somehow it's OK in this other arena."

Which, by the way, also often involves workplaces. I think that right now what hasn't quite happened is a reconciliation of those kinds of contradictions.

Debbie:  In 1988, while you were in high school, in lieu of creating a traditional diary, you started what you called "A Book of Books." In it you recorded every book that you read, and you still keep this up today. You've called your Book of Books Bob, for short.

You documented this first in a New York Times essay in 2012, writing that if your house burst into flames, it would be the one thing you sought to save. You captured your first book in Bob, Franz Kafka's "The Trial," while on a summer cultural immersion program in rural France at 17 years old.

Did you have a sense that this was something you'd be doing for the rest of your life?

Pamela:  [laughs] No. I started that off. I tried to keep other diaries and they were really miserable experiences, nothing that anyone would want to ever look back on. The incidents that I wrote about were really trivial and the prose wasn't good.

I thought, "Let me write about what I really would like to keep a record of, which I think reflects my life in many ways, as faithfully in certain ways ‑‑ in a deeper way ‑‑ than just recording what happens during the day, because what you read is where you are psychologically, emotionally.

I think you can't really untangle where you are in a story in your mind from where you are physically in the world. Often, where you are in a story is more where you want to be than where you are in reality.

Keeping this journal over time has really...I can reconstruct a narrative of my life in a way that I don't think I would have otherwise been able to do.

You know how when you write down a dream right after you wake up? You could look back at that dream even 24 hours later and be like, "I don't even remember writing that down," if you're still in that dream space.

Debbie:  Yes.

Pamela:  You're like, "I don't recognize this. I don't recognize this person." When I look at My Bob, I remember all of it. I remember that, and remember where I bought that book, what it looked like, what it felt like, what I thought about it.

I might not actually remember the plot of the book or even the names of the characters, but somehow, that emotional experience must be so resident that it just really sticks with me.

It also then in its entirety does show this narrative of like, "Oh right, because I bought that when I was in China, and then I remember I flew home, and I was in New York and then I remember I went to the Saint Mark's bookstore and I got that book. It was on the front table, and I got it because it was only $7.99."

You can remember this whole layer of detail that otherwise you would be lost.

Debbie:  It's become a time stamp of sorts in your life. You likened Bob to Chris Madeline capable of veritable time travel of bringing you back to the moment when you read the given book. I tried to do something similar, though not nearly as grand.

Many years ago, I decided to recreate my childhood library, and have nearly completed purchasing all the books, and I remember reading. I remember reading as a child but I don't really remember the reading. I just know that I had them, and they meant so much to me.

It was really magical to reread the books that I read. It was both transformative and transporting at the same time.

Pamela:  Did you have "I Am a Bunny"?

Debbie:  No.

Pamela:  Now I'm tempted to ask what's on your childhood bookshelf? What a great idea.

Debbie:  Oh, yes, absolutely. My favorite book of all is a book called Words which I actually have a beautiful, pristine copy of that I re‑found of the actual version that I had. I also was a big young adult books person, so "Mystery at Sturbridge Village," "The Girl Across the Way," "Next Door to Xanadu," those books.

It took me awhile to find them all. Even after eBay, it took a while. I was a big Catherine and Willie fan, Madeleine l'Engle, of course, and I have them all. I also really, really love the All of a Kind Family. That was a huge, huge series for me.

Pamela:  I think your idea sounds rather grand.

Debbie:  Shall we recreate it?

Pamela:  Yes.

Debbie:  It's been helpful now with eBay. I remember looking in every bookstore, used bookstore I could find for a book called "Dot For Short," and I kept writing to the publisher asking them to republish it, and then finally one day it appeared in a bookstore, republished. I sort of felt responsible.


Debbie:  I remember buying it...

Pamela:  Indeed, you were.

Debbie:  I bought it at that moment I saw it, went outside of the bookstore, stood next to a light pole and read it entirely from cover to cover outside, on the street with my coat on. That's how much I needed to read those words again.

Pamela:  [laughs] Fancy that.

Debbie:  You wrote this in one of the early chapters of My Life With Bob about writing in Bob. "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 managed 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 felt she lived more in the cozy world of books than any 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."

Pamela, this book of book of yours, it's almost like evidence of living. It really is.

Pamela:  Thank you.

Debbie:  It's a wonderful, wonderful book. As I've gotten older, I found myself saying over and over, "How can I be in my 50's? I still feel like I'm 16." Several years ago, I moved apartments, and when I came across my childhood journals, I read through them all and realized, "Oh my God, I'm not even the same human."

I couldn't believe what I was so obsessed about and what I was so agonized over, and all of my obsessions. I was horrified and mortified. I don't get that sense at all from my Book of Books.

Pamela:  When I was researching the book, I did keep a few diaries. They were filled diaries. They would often just last like 15 pages, and I remember reading in one about some guy and I thought, "I don't even know who this is?" Yet, it went on for pages, and I was in my 20's. I wasn't like 12.


Pamela:  No clue. Yet I can look at the pages from my Bob when I'm in my 20s and everything returns.

Debbie:  Do you think you'll ever share the entire contents of Bob with the world, fulling, revealing your life at large?

Pamela:  No, no way. I did share it once with one person, because it was a funny thing. Before "My Life with Bob" came out, but it was almost fully written, I was editing a "By the Book" with the writer Jeffrey Toobin.

In his By the Book, he talked about how he had been keeping a journal of books for many years that he had taken over. His father had kept it and then he took it over when his father died. I thought, "Oh, man, you're stealing my thunder, Jeff Toobin."

I moderated a panel that he was on and I told him this. When the book came out he read it and he said, "Let's have lunch and we'll each bring our Book of Books." I was really nervous about it. First of all, Bob is old. Bob is gray and Bob, I think, is rotting away. I spilled coffee on him a long time ago and it's just fraying.

I don't know if he's moldering but something about him looks awfully fragile. I taped him up a little bit ‑‑ usually I just keep him at home ‑‑ and I brought him in and Jeffrey Toobin and I met and we each had our Bobs. It was really fun, because his is old too. We actually started them the same year, it turned out, 1988. We had read many of the same books, as it happened.

It felt like this really intimate exchange. I was nervous. I'm like "Maybe I'll look at your Bob first. Then I'll let you look at mine." Anyway, he got special dispensation.

Debbie:  You've also written this in My Life with Bob ‑‑ about something like this. "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, in trains, in between meetings. With each entry, I grow more guarded about his contents. I feel as protective of Bob as I do of myself."

Pamela, my next question is a tad morbid, but bear with me. When a friend of mine found out that I was going to be interviewing you, he wondered, are you going to be buried with Bob? Or will you pass it along to your children?

Pamela:  Wow. I'll pass it along, I think. It's interesting, because I was just asked by a library about...They wanted to house my papers. My immediate thought was, "In this day and age, how many papers, physical papers, does one have?"

That would certainly be a part of my papers, so I'll have to weigh that. I don't want to be buried, so I definitely don't want to have them burned [laughs] along with me in the crematorium. That would be an awful shame.

Debbie:  Your husband once tweeted that you and your family were packing for a family vacation and included a photo showing a cache that included "Artemis Fell," the "Series of Unfortunate Events" books, a "National Geographic Kids" Weird But True book, and Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go." I think it's safe to say your family shares your love of reading?

Pamela:  Yeah. That was a trip we took last summer to South Dakota. My daughter, who just turned 13, picked out the Ishiguro, in this great bookstore, Mitzi's, in Rapid City, South Dakota, and decided to read it, which I think was her first grown‑up book.

Debbie:  Wow, that's pretty good.

Pamela:  That was exciting. Yes. She predicted that Nobel Prize.

Debbie:  Really.

Pamela:  No, but it was nice timing. Yeah, we went back to that Mitzi's bookstore three or four times. My kids were not used to having books be so inaccessible, so we'd be in the Badlands, hours away from Rapid City, and my kids were like, "All right, I'm done. Let's go back to Mitzi's." I'm like, "Um..."


Pamela:  It's not...


Pamela: door.

Debbie:  The last thing I want to talk to you about is your essays. You wrote an essay last year in the "Times" titled, "Why You Should Read Books You Hate." You wrote this.

"Here's a reading challenge. Pick up a book you're pretty sure you won't like. The style is wrong, the taste not your own, the author bio unappealing. You might even take it one step further. Pick up a book you think you will hate, of a genre you've dismissed since high school, written by an author you're inclined to avoid. Now read it to the last, bitter page.

"Sound like hell? You're off to a good start." Pamela, my question is this. Why? Why should we read books that we sort of know we're going to hate?

Pamela:  I guess it goes back to that A‑to‑D versus E‑through‑Z thing. Sometimes you don't know yourself as well as you think you do, and sometimes you make a decision about yourself at an early age that might change over time, and what we want and need from books evolves over time.

I also think there's something about this particular moment where much of our media is filtered. We're not all turning in to the same radio stations. We have a jillion podcasts. We're not all choosing among three or four broadcast television networks. We are picking who we follow on Twitter. We're choosing what streaming service to use. We're all narrowcasting ourselves.

I think that you need to expose yourself to other viewpoints. Especially at a time where you're getting served up exactly what you want and expect, you need to overturn your expectations. That is what reading is supposed to do. It's supposed to open up your mind. It's supposed to challenge you. Reading is supposed to make you uncomfortable.

Yes, there's comfort reading too, and reading can be a great solace. I think that reading should cause you to ask questions of yourself. It should expose you to ways of thinking and expressing oneself that you might not have thought of and that you might have assumed you wouldn't want to hear. That's exactly why I think you should hear it.

Debbie:  You quoted Kafka in My Life with Bob, and I'd like to share that quote with you because I think it's so beautiful.

He says, "I think we ought to read only the kinds of books that wound and stab us. If the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us."

Pamela:  Yeah, it's funny. When people like at the first book in my Book of Books and they're like, "Kafka? But you were 17. That's sort of A, pretentious, or precocious or whatever." Kafka is like, that's adolescence right there. It's dark and questioning and tormented.

Debbie:  You also quote Jeanette Winterston...actually, you quote Jeanette Winterson's mother, who once admonished her by saying, "The trouble with books is that you don't know what's in them until it's too late." I wonder, do you ever regret reading a book?

Pamela:  I regretted reading know, no. I always think about, the one thing I took away from Econ 111 in college, which was the one economics class I took, was the idea of opportunity costs, which is that every amount of time that you dedicate to doing something else, it's not just the cost of that but it's the cost of what you could have been doing during that time instead. Any busy person makes that calculus.

"The Fountainhead" is a book that I absolutely despise by Ayn Rand. I hate it with all of my heart, and yet I can't say I fully regret it, because it's like theater. You need to see bad theater in order to appreciate the good. Same thing with art. If I hadn't read that, I don't think that I could...First of all, the prose is terrible. It's like "Dominique strode across the room."

Also, the ideas in it I found to be morally reprehensible. I don't think that just reading about her philosophy in an article could have gotten at exactly where I think that philosophy takes you. It wouldn't have affected me on that level.

That's another reason why I think it is important to read things that you hate, and not just an opinion piece or a news story, but a full‑length book and read it to the end, is that books offer you a kind of depth and context and long‑term perspective that you don't get in 1,200 words or 1,500 words or even 5,000 words.

Sometimes you need to really sit with something and immerse yourself in it to really understand why you like it or, as is often the case, you don't like it.

Debbie:  Pamela Paul, thank you so much for being on "Design Matters" today and thank you for invigorating the world with your writing and your editing, and of course the really, really wonderful "Book Review."

Pamela:  Oh, thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

Debbie:  Pamela Paul's latest book is "My Life with Bob ‑‑ Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues." You can also listen to her great podcast, the Book Review, on iTunes and online at

This is the 13th year I've been doing Design Matters and I'd like to thank you for listening. Remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman and I look forward to talking with you again soon.