How the books editor of the New York Times decides what to read

  • Fecha:04-07-2017
  • Fuente: Vox
Boston Globe / Contributor

Even the editor of the New York Times Book Review hasn’t read everything.

“We joke at theBook Review because we all are constantly saying, ‘Oh, have you read such and such?’ And the answer 80 percent of the time is ‘no,’ because there’s no way,” Pamela Paul told me in a recent interview.

Since 2013, Paul has revitalized the New York Times’sdynamicbooks coverage, especially the New York Times Book Review, and The Book Review Podcast. Formerly the Times’schildren’s books editor, Paul is the author of four nonfiction books, most famously Pornified.

Her new memoir, My Life With Bob,is about the emotional engagement and enthusiasm that readers have for books. (The title refers to Paul’s book of books, a reading diary she has kept since she was a teenager.) Our conversation, which has been condensed and edited, covers reading habits, how books reflect the zeitgeist, what makes the Times’s coverage special, pornography’s negative effects, and summer.

Alexander Bisley

What’s a current book that is capturing the zeitgeist for you?

Pamela Paul

My personal way of engaging with the zeitgeist, in a way, is to disengage with the zeitgeist [laughs]. With engagement, they can offer you a deeper perspective and a longer view of anything going on in the current moment, whether political, or economic, or environmental. On the other hand, you can just choose to be in a book, and that’s pretty much the only way you can leave, barring expensive travel to an island spa. So personally I’m doing the pure escapism in books, at the moment.

I’m reading a memoir called The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald that came out in 1945. She became famous for her children’s books Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. It’s about her moving to and setting up a chicken ranch outside of Seattle, Washington, and all of the surprises that are in store for her there. It’s incredibly well-written and very funny. After a full day of being onscreen, looking at this swirl of headlines on social media, and frankly a ceaseless news cycle, it’s really nice to retreat to this chicken farm and contemplate the difficulties of getting eggs out from under hens. That actually feels quite peaceful. It’s a very nice remove from my own daily systems.

Alexander Bisley

Conversely at work, leading the Times books coverage, you have responsibility for probing the political zeitgeist.

Pamela Paul

One recent novel that has spoken about something that is of global concern is Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, which is about refugees. That is obviously a concern in every country right now, and I thought his words were really beautiful in that book. People are returning to earlier books about totalitarianism, and fascism, and political oppression in droves — in the US, at least. 1984, Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, these kinds of books have seen renewed attention.

Alexander Bisley

Is there a book you think every politician should read?

Pamela Paul

Politics and the English Language by George Orwell is a really brilliant essay about communication in general and political rhetoric in particular.

Alexander Bisley

Does your reading change with the seasons?

Pamela Paul

Ah! I love the idea of summer reading, but it doesn’t actually play out for me differently now that I’m working very full time and have three children. When I am on a beach is very rare, like once a year. I often choose those moments, curiously, to pick up a big, dense novel. I write in My Life With Bob about reading Moby Dick while vacationing on Ko Phi Phi in southern Thailand. Ko Phi Phi is an island where most people are not reading Moby Dick but are drinking themselves silly, and scuba diving.

Alexander Bisley

You don’t have a favorite book you return to during the summers?

Pamela Paul

I’m not a returner to books. I feel endlessly curious to read the books I haven’t read. But one of the two books I have gone back to is Buddenbrooks. Thomas Mann wrote that when he was 25, and I read it when I was about that age. What was so shocking to me was that he, at that young age, was able to capture so many life experiences and emotions of people much older than him and who had those experiences where he had not. His incredible emotional acuity in understanding what disappointment was like, and parenthood, and grandparenthood, and failure. Rereading it in my late 30s, it did completely hold up, and it was all the more impressive.

Alexander Bisley

Is there an especially embarrassing gap in your reading?

Pamela Paul

Oh, my God, there’s so many gaps. My neglect of reading of poetry is terrible; I’m a terrible poetry reader. I read it so rarely. Also, I never got an MFA, so there are a lot of writers’ writers who I haven’t read. I tend to read very few short stories and concentrate primarily on the novel when I do read fiction. So that’s another big gap. And I would also say that the big midcentury greats that are popular especially among baby boomers — [John] Updike, and [Saul] Bellow, and [Philip] Roth — I’ve read very little in there. So that’s another gaping hole. We all have them.

Part of what I write about in My Life With Bob is the fact that the more you read, the more you realize you haven’t read. And even when you’re among dedicated book readers, we joke at theBook Review here at the Timesbecause we all are constantly saying, “Oh, have you read such and such?” And the answer 80 percent of the time is “no,” because there’s no way. There’s so many books out there and there’s no way that we can all be caught up. For a long time, I didn’t read contemporary fiction because I was still catching up on the 19th century.

Alexander Bisley

What makes the New York Times Book Reviewspecial?

Pamela Paul

We’re the only newspaper that has three full-time staff critics. And we’re the only newspaper that has a full-time, dedicated children’s book editor. What the New York Times physically does, we think, is offer authoritative, relevant coverage that helps readers know what to make of the big, new, important books that are out there, but also enables them to discover new voices and find unexpected gems. That requires a full-time, dedicated staff. We’re not just covering the books that the publishers are coming in and telling us, “These are the big books.” We’re finding small books from independent presses. Very few publications are doing this anymore, doing this with the authority that the Timesdoes.

The internet means that we can reach everyone. So many local newspapers have cut their books coverage. Local papers that used to have a full-time staff critic, or a book review section, no longer do. Having just come from Australia, where I was for the Sydney Writers Festival, it was instructive for me that so many people were following our coverage. That’s because, as you know, most Australian publications have pulled back on their books coverage. There’s still a very lively literary criticism scene in Australia: It’s a country of enormous numbers of readers, and a lot of them are reading theNew York Times, so that was really exciting.

Alexander Bisley

What’s at stake with a good book review?

Pamela Paul

You should feel like the reviewer engaged with the work. That they took it seriously, that they wrote it with respect, that they were fair, that they’re accurate. That they really wrote about the book and represented the book as it was written. That they reviewed the book in question and not the book they wish the author had written instead.

That if there is a greater argument to be made that it really does come out of the book. That the book isn’t just an excuse to climb on something else, known as a platform review, where the reviewer stands on top of the book and the book is just there to provide that podium. A good book review gives a sense of the writing. It’s amazing how many book reviews can come out and not quote from the book. You want to know what the book actually sounds like.

Alexander Bisley

Your most famous book, 2005’s Pornified, wasprescient about pornography’s negative aspects. “Pornography is wildly popular with teenage boys in a way that makes yesteryear's sneaked glimpses at Penthouse seem monastic. For teenagers, pornography is just another online activity; there is little barrier to entry and almost no sense of taboo,” was one memorable line. Twelve years on, would you add anything to your critique?

Pamela Paul

Only that it feels more relevant than ever. That book started off as a story for Time magazine that came out in 2003. When I proposed the idea that the internet was affecting the ways in which people consumed pornography and then the implications that that kind of consumption had for people’s sex lives, for their relationships, for the way that children learned about sexuality, that idea was kind of radical at the time. People thought: “Well, really? Is this a thing?” I had to persuade that this was a story and that there were in fact repercussions.

Now the evidence is inarguable, and there have been a number of other books that have come out, whether specifically on that topic or more generally about the ways in which the internet has transformed personal and social relations overall.

There’s been an enormous amount of vindication and amplification of what I said in Pornified. Some people said, “Oh, well, she only talked to the extremists and addicts.”

I still hear from readers on that book; the responses that I get most often are, “This is my life,” “You’re talking about me.” Or, “You’re talking about my husband,” or, “This is my son,” or “my brother.” Pornified has a long shelf life, but not for the happiest reasons.

Alexander Bisley

I’ve been appreciating the Times’s coverage of feminist literature, writing by and about female writers. Any comment you’d make on feminist writing in America in 2017?

Pamela Paul

That there’s still a need for awareness. That the change still isn’t there, that we’re still arguing and putting forth the same complaints, the same suggestions, the same call to action, that’s been bubbling since the 1970s, is a bit dispiriting. On the flip side, what’s encouraging is that there’s clearly an appetite for people to read about those things; they’re resonating, and readers respond to them.

Alexander Bisley

In My Life With Bob, you write about you and your freelance writer friends struggling [in your] emerging years in New York’s “Invisible Institute,” as you dubbed the experience. “Writing doesn’t pay” is one sharp line. Is there any advice you have for younger writers?

Pamela Paul

It’s terrible how little writing pays. For freelance journalists in the early ’70s, the going rate was $1 to $2 a word, and for certain publications it was $5 per word. Many print publications that used to, as a rule, pay $2 a word have gone down to $1. Internet writing pays less than print writing, and sometimes it’s as low as 50 cents a word or $300 per story. There’ve been scandalous stories that bubble up on the internet, of places that will ask seasoned, experienced writers to write for free for “exposure.” Writing is a profession, like any other, and it deserves to be paid accordingly. Unfortunately, right now, the business model has not really evolved to accommodate that.

My advice would be to work really very hard and to hopefully have another source of income.

Alexander Bisley

What’s the most exciting aspect of your Timesjob?

Pamela Paul

Oh, as a book lover it’s the dream job. You couldn’t ask for more because it’s access to books, it’s access to authors and editors and people who work in the process of bringing books to readers, and it’s access to colleagues who are fellow book evangelists, and enthusiasts, and voracious readers. Working in an institution like the New York Times that is really dedicated, that sees books as part of its journalistic mission and supports that, it couldn’t be a more fulfilling experience.

I feel like a kid in the candy store because there’s books everywhere and I’m supposed to read them. I didn’t grow up surrounded by books of my own, which I write about in My Life With Bob. I felt like I went from books being a rare and magical thing to books being an omnipresent and yet still magical thing.

Correction: This article was updated with the correct title of the George Orwell essay Politics and the English Language.

Alexander Bisley’s tips for summer reading include Gary Shteyngart, Pico Iyer, Paul Theroux’s travel writing, and W. Kamau Bell’s new autobiography.