Hi. I'm thrilled to be interviewing Pamela Paul today. Pamela is the editor of The New York Times Book Review and oversees all book coverage at The Times. She hosts the weekly podcast “Inside The New York Times Book Review.” Pamela has written many books including her fantastic memoir My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues. She also wrote The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony, Parenting, Inc.: How the Billion-Dollar Baby Business Has Changed the Way We Raise our Children, and Pornified: How Pornography is Damaging Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families. She also edited By the Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life from The New York Times Book Review. Pamela wrote the Studied column in the Sunday Style section of The New York Times and has had her work published in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Economist, Vogue, and many more publications. Her next book, How to Raise a Reader, is coming out soon. A graduate of Brown University, Pamela lives in the New York area with her husband and three children.
Welcome, Pamela, to “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Pamela Paul: Thanks so much for having me.
Zibby: Thanks for taking the time. If you don't mind, I want to start with the op-ed you wrote recently for The New York Times called “Let Children Get Bored Again.” I've had it up on my bulletin board since you wrote it. I've had my mom send it to me. I keep thinking about it. Let's talk about that for a sec, if that okay.
Pamela: There were a couple of impetuses for that piece. One was the fact that at back-to-school night in our schools, I kept hearing this language that I don't recall ever being used when I was a student. It’s as if the teachers feel quite desperate to capture children's attention and to engage them. They try to do this by constantly upping the ante. To me, that's a dangerous thing. You have kids who are constantly being encouraged by teachers to become accustomed to a higher level of entertainment and diversion. Then at home, they're also encouraged. It’s not that either teachers or parents are necessarily to blame here. There are a lot of factors at work. What happens is that they mutually feed off each other. If children are constantly entertained and diverted in a home, then when they get to school, it’s incredibly boring by comparison, and vice versa. That was one thing.
The second thing was personal. I don't think this is just about kids. It’s about us adults as well. I had been contemplating, like probably many people have contemplated, starting to meditate. It’s one of those twenty-five-year-old goals that I've had that I still haven't acted on. There had been a number of articles in The Times about meditating. I just kept thinking, “How am I going to squeeze this in? I don't have time to meditate. What would have to go? Would I cut out physical therapy? Would I cut out exercise? Would I cut out a walk to work? Would I cut out something with my kids? Would I go to work late?” I didn't know how to figure out how to have time to do that.
Then I thought, that's crazy, first of all. Secondly, if I did have twenty minutes to spare every day and I did want it to be some kind of downtime -- not that there's anything wrong with meditation. I still think I should meditate, but it’s the opposite of boredom. It’s very intentional downtime. That's so typical of us as adults too. We want to maximize every single moment of our day. Even when I am walking to the train station, I think to myself, “Oh, there's not a lot of foot traffic here. I could actually answer some emails while I'm walking. Shouldn’t I get a headset and listen to a podcast while I'm walking? How could I use this time better?” There's a pervasive sense that if you have downtime, if you have “empty time,” it’s on you to fill it. We’re teaching this to kids at an early age. We, as adults, have become accustomed to it. That was the genesis of that piece.
Zibby: In the piece, you said that things really happen when you're bored. You said it’s when you're bored that stories set in. That's when you can become most creative. That's what we’re missing.
Pamela: Absolutely. When I think back to the jobs that I had as a teenager -- I started working, beyond babysitting, when I was thirteen, back when kids really worked after school. I actually loved those jobs. They were the kinds of things that you might consider, on the face of it, to be incredibly boring. I was putting together sales sheets in a factory. I worked at a supermarket checking out items. I did lots of really menial kinds of jobs. I, in fact, loved it. It was like a downtime and a forced break. It’s like taking a shower is today. When you're taking a shower, we pretty much know what we’re looking at. We pretty much know what we have to do. Your mind is otherwise empty. I don't know about you, but I have some of my best ideas in the shower. It’s because I'm forced to think about something other than shampooing my hair. I actually find myself constantly dashing out of the shower to take a note of something. That's one of the few times where my brain has that space to free float.
Zibby: I feel that way sometimes when I attend board meeting that are a little bit slow. I use the notepad to write down all these ideas I'm having about other things. I should be paying attention. It’s the same thing, same concept.
Pamela: My husband used to say when we would be at some incredibly boring meeting together or school event or something, I'd be like, “How are you doing?” He said, “I'm at SeaWorld,” which was his metaphor of basically saying, “I am not actually here. I'm off down to SeaLand.”
Zibby: The article was a really good reminder of the importance of that. Thanks for that. I loved your book. I know you’ve written many books. Your memoir, My Life with Bob, totally resonated with me, I think because I'm a huge book lover too. Although, I didn't have the foresight to record every book I've ever read the way you've done, which is amazing and incredible. You mentioned how you were so shy as a child. You said at one point social skills were not your forte. Although having met you now, I would disagree with that. You said reading was the one thing when you were young that you were good at.
I was wondering, do you think that shy kids end up drifting more towards reading and writing? I was a very shy kid as well. That's where I ended up. I don't know if you thought there was a link there.
Pamela: I definitely think there's a link towards shyness or introversion and reading. Books and stories are filled with characters. Characters can be very good company. Also, characters in these stories show us ways to negotiate and interact with the rest of the world. If you're not quite sure how things operate, how to do things, then you can figure that out in a book. I also have one memory. I was actually talking to one of my children about this. We were talking about really embarrassing, stupid things that happen when you're little that stay with you for a very long time.
I remember one time I had just moved to a new town. I was standing at recess. I was not at all sporty. I didn't know anyone. I was all by myself. I remember being isolated on the concrete, standing there, and someone dashing up to me and saying, “The flood’s over,” and running away and people laughing. It wasn’t until I read that particular insult in a book a few years later that I even knew what it meant, which is that my pants were too short. They were hand-me-downs. That was a major fashion faux pas at the time I was in grade school. I didn't realize it. It’s interesting that nobody was going to tell me that. I'm sure the other kids completely forgot about it within ten minutes. I didn't forget. I didn't really understand it until I read it in a novel.
Zibby: I pretty much haven't forgotten any negative thing anyone's ever said. [laughs]
Pamela: We file these things away. In stories, that's where, also, you learn how to cope with it. Children's books writers, the successful ones, the good ones, and I think most publishers are also, in the children's book world, really conscientious about this, those characters reflect real people in our lives, even in fantasy stories. You can have a dragon story where there are dragons, but those dragons are actually kids. Those kids are actually having real, childlike emotions. For kids, even to just be one step removed from where they are, that helps them. You see other introspective kids, other bookish kids, other shy kids in these stories. In those stories, they're the heroes. One of the incredible things that Rick Riordan did -- he’s the author of the Percy Jackson books -- is to make his hero dyslexic and to turn that into a signal for strength and for greatness. That took kids who were feeling self-conscious about their inability or their difficulty in reading and turned it into a strength.
Zibby: You said something very similar in the book. You wrote, “If something happened to one of the characters that had happened to you, it meant you weren’t a freak. There was a precedent. And if you could find out what they did about it, you might find your own solution, or at least learn what not to do.” That's totally it. Books, in a way, always are validation that we aren’t so crazy ourselves, that other people feel the way we do, either now or as kids, that we’re somehow not alone.
Pamela: What's funny is when I started keeping my book of books, I really kept that to myself. It wasn’t something I ran around telling people about my dorky diary. When I first wrote about it, which was in 2012, I was working at The New York Times Book Review. We were launching this feature called “By the Book,” which was a questionnaire interview with an author or other public figure about their reading life. I thought, “This makes sense to me.” You can tell a lot about a person by what they read. Maybe, it won't be quite obvious to our readers. For that particular issue where we launched and David Sedaris was the first subject, I wrote an essay about my book of books that I called Bob. That essay, I think, was called “My Life with Bob,” in The New York Times. It ran on the back page. After it ran, I got this deluge of emails and also snail mail letters that had, in the letters, photocopies or photographs of people's own book of books. It turned out I wasn’t the only person. I wasn’t the only freak out there that kept this crazy diary of all the books that I had ever read. Even late in life, it was validating to find out that my book of books actually isn't a completely freakish idea, but something that other people had done. They too wanted to keep track of their own life through the stories that they had read.
Zibby: I think I'm going to have my kids start keeping a book of books now. It’s too late for me. Well, I guess I could start. At least they would have the context that you have, that they could look back.
Pamela: It’s interesting. One of the things that is happening in schools right now is a lot of schools are forcing kids to keep these book records, these weekly book sheets where you have to write down the book that you're reading and how much time you spent reading it. It’s usually on a loose piece of paper. That turns reading into a chore. That is something that is not for you. It’s for the school. It’s not kept in any kind of keepsake way. It’s just a sheet for the teachers to make sure that kids are reading in the home. The intent is completely noble, especially in communities where kids might not be given regular access to books through their library or through their parents. I understand. I get it. What would be so much more meaningful is for them to have a book of books. Then it’s for them. It’s about maintaining their own journal and their own personal record. Twisting it slightly, turning that idea makes it much more powerful. It’s not about proving to the teacher that you're reading. It’s about keeping a personal memoir for yourself about who you are becoming through your own reading.
Zibby: That's a great idea. I love that. In your book, you talked about how you ended up advocating for yourself and ending up with the job as the children's books editor at The New York Times. I loved that story and then how that eventually became your job as The New York Times Book Review editor. Can you share that story with listeners?
Pamela: I had been working from home. Assuming you have lots of parent listeners, they will understand the joys of working from home. I was in my pajamas all day. I had three young children. I was able to nurse all of them. I was able to take a break and have my lunch with them. Even though I had full-time childcare and I was working full time as a journalist, I had total flexibility and freedom. I never intended to work in an office ever again. What happened was that the previous editor of the Book Review was looking for someone to fill the spot of the children's books editor who had left, predecessor to become, at that point, an agent. It’s a really hard job to fill. You need to have someone who obviously loves and cares about children's literature, but also someone who’s a journalist. You can't have someone who’s a librarian in that position. You also can't have someone who’s a journalist and doesn't care about kid’s books at all. It was a hard job to fill. He was asking me for help. There had only been four children's books editors in the history of The New York Times because it’s a really great job. People who got that job held onto it. Again, a difficult position to fill. I had been suggesting people for it knowing that I, and Sam Tanenhaus who was the editor then, also knew that I never ever, ever, ever, ever wanted to leave my house, at least for work purposes.
We were in Los Angeles where we go every year to visit my husband’s family. We were driving around. There used to be this great children's bookstore/illustration gallery called Every Picture Tells A Story. Every time we would go out there -- it was in Santa Monica -- I wanted to go. The [indiscernible] something about it is that my kids, of course, loved it too. They wanted me to read them particular stories while I was there. That was great. I loved doing that. I love reading to my kids, but I also really wanted to look at the books myself, and the illustrations. I was in the car plotting with my husband. When can I possibly, on this trip, have time to go by myself? Now that my kids are a little bit older, it’s hard to even recollect those days when just negotiating an hour to yourself, it’s a complicated maneuver to make. We were on vacation. We didn't have childcare.
As I was saying that, I was thinking, “Wait a minute. You're saying you want to go to a children's bookstore without your kids so that you can look at the books? Obviously, you really care about children's books. Maybe you should be the children's books editor.” I sent an email casually saying, “Look, if you could make this job part time, maybe I would consider taking it.” Within three weeks, I was working at The New York Times. That was literally over Christmas break in 2010. My first day at The Times was January 24th of 2011. It was that very casual “I wonder if” email. I haven't regretted it for a moment. Although, there were certainly some trepidation before I started and even as I started thinking, “What have I done?” I had the thing that so many working mothers want. I'm able to do what I love doing and be there for my kids. I never have to get dressed or put on makeup. I have given it up. It took me a while to acclimate even. When I think back to that time, I remember looking at myself one day and being like, “Wait, what am I wearing?” I was still wearing maternity clothes and sweatpants and drawstring-tie mom-khakis to work. It took me a while for the professional person to catch up to where I actually was.
Zibby: Now, you've been there for eight years. What is it like editing the Book Review? How do you feel having that level of influence? You can make or break an author’s career. What is it like for you? Tell me a little more about it.
Pamela: I don't really think about it that way. It is obviously a huge responsibility. It’s helpful having been an author before coming into this position. It means that I am not cavalier when it comes to the impact that it has on writer’s lives. It’s really hard when you care about books and you work within the world of books, whether you're an author or editor or whatever, to remember this. The New York Times’s obligation isn't to the writers and the publishing industry and the aspiring writers. Our audience are readers of The New York Times. If a book is not that good and let's say it’s coming from either a hugely hyped debut author, hugely hyped, getting tons of press and excitement around it and it’s not good, or it’s coming from someone who comes out with a new book every year or two, they usually do a really great job but this one’s not good, is it our obligation to make that person feel better or given that the fact that we’re serving readers of The New York Times -- we’re making really hard choices about how do I spend my time? What's worth my time and money to buy? What book should I read? -- to give them an honest assessment of that work?
We’re always going to veer towards the latter. That's who we are trying to serve. Also, as journalists, again, we’re not in the promotional business. We are in the reporting business. It’s unfortunate that so many news outlets and particularly newspapers -- again, I don't blame them for this, it’s a really tough environment -- they’ve cut back on their cultural and, particularly, their books coverage. They don't have the time to go through all of these books and to make those assessments and to have people who have been working in the field for ten, twenty -- we have editors who've been at the Book Review for thirty years and have a really strong sense of what makes a book worthwhile, even if that book isn't to their taste. That requires, first of all, massive staff and time to go through all those books.
We’re the only freestanding newspaper book review left in the country. We are the only outlet left, other than the trade publications, that actually not just cherry-picks like, “Oh, look. We’re going to do this book. We’re going to do that book. We’re going to do this book,” but we review the landscape. That's what The New York Times Book Review is. That's what a book review is. Every book that comes to our office gets a look. It might get a look for five seconds. We might know we don't this cover this category. This isn't for us. We look at all of those books. We go through them to find the ones that aren’t getting the hype, the ones that are coming from this tiny, new publisher, the ones that are from an author that no one has ever heard of, that are being translated from Serbian for the first time even though the writer is a legend in Serbia. We are going through all of that to assess for our readers, “You know what? You should know about this book.”
Zibby: Give me a visual. How does this work? You have a room where a billion books come in? How does it all get sorted? How do you assign who reads what? How do you keep track?
Pamela: It’s a huge process. Everything gets logged into a database. We have people who open up the mail twice a day because it comes in through air. We do have a room that's dedicated to the incoming books. We have a huge length of compressed rolling bookshelves. If you were not to have rolling bookshelves, you would have a room, even for fire code purposes, that would be a full floor of The New York Times building where we then keep the books when they're under consideration or when they’ve been selected for review. There's a complicated process that you have to go through. It’s a huge amount of tearing open of envelopes and logging books into a database and then making sure that we keep the copies around. Then they are distributed to a staff of what we call preview editors who then each week will go through, let's say, a hundred books and have to figure out -- probably they have three preliminary piles. “We’re not going to do these ones. These ones, we’re definitely going to do. Now this group in the middle, I don't know if we’re going to do.” They have to really go through those ones more carefully and determine. It’s hard.
It’s hard to, say, if you have a history of the civil war that comes in, to say, “Is this new? Is this interesting? Who is this author? Were there new sources of material for this? How do I make that judgement?” We’re lucky to have the editor of our history books who’s been there for thirty years who can say, “This is a rehash of a book this guy wrote ten years ago. There's no new scholarship in this. This is not very well written. He’s left entire battles out. This is [indiscernible] military history.” Those are things that, if you just glanced at it, you might not know. If you get, let's say, twenty books on bitcoin in a month, how do you determine this is the one that should be reviewed and the rest of these, it doesn't make sense for people to waste their time, or a novel, which I think is even harder? Let's say you have seven new short story collections coming out that month that one particular editor might get. How are you supposed to determine which one or two of those might get reviewed? We review about one percent of the books that come out in the United States in a given year.
Zibby: Oh, my gosh. That's wild.
Pamela: Yeah, it’s not easy.
Zibby: That's such a daunting task. I'm stressed out just thinking about it. Not that it’s necessarily something you can analyze or make some sort of formula about, but what do you think the ingredients are for fantastic books?
Pamela: It’s very hard to generalize. I would say fiction has so many differences from nonfiction.
Zibby: Let's say fiction. Let's take a novel.
Pamela: With a novel, there are things that, frankly, readers judge books on. Are these characters interesting? Are they credible? Are they fully fleshed out? Is this writer’s voice arresting? Am I grabbed in the first page? If I'm not, am I still curious about it? David Foster Wallace famously said that he purposely made the first two hundred pages of Infinite Jest impossible to get through. It was this hurdle. If you got through that, then you deserved to read the rest of the book. Now, I'm not saying that's true for most books. Not every book grabs you from the first page. Is there something else there? Is there something in the perspective, in the sentences, in the voice of the writer? When you're considering that as a whole, how coherent is the narrative? Is it doing something new and inventive? Is this just a great, classically-told, traditional, dig-in nineteenth century style novel, but is the subject matter something interesting, something we haven't seen before, something that's new or something's that old but undiscovered? There might be a novel that takes place in the early twentieth century, but it’s looking at a period in history from a perspective of an African American, or a Native American, or from a woman, or from some view that we haven't seen before.
There a lot of ways to even take a subject matter than can feel old, but to look at it through a new lens, to do something that might be experimental or something that might feel really fresh. Let's take Jenny Offill’s book Dept. of Speculation, which was one of our ten best books about six years ago. It’s a story about a marriage and about motherhood. You can say there's nothing new about that subject, and yet the way that she wrote that book, the way that she handled it, it felt electrifying at the time. Her whole approach to those subjects felt really different. It was like Rachel Cusk, another person who might write about things that we feel like we know. She wrote a book about new motherhood. She wrote a book about the aftermath of divorce. She's written books about what it’s like to be a middle-aged, professional woman. Yet in her voice, in her handling, those subjects feel entirely new. Those are some of the things.
Zibby: Wow. That was so interesting. Thank you. Tell me about, quickly, I know we’re almost out of time, your upcoming book, How to Raise a Reader.
Pamela: This is a book that I cowrote with our current children's books editor Maria Russo, which is coming out in September. It started off as a digital guide for The New York Times. That guide was also called “How to Raise a Reader.” When we worked on it, as much as I love my job, and I absolutely love my job, it was a really fun but also mission-driven break from the rest of the day. It was like, “Oh, good! We get to do this.” Both of us felt incredibly energized by it. Finally, we get to write about this thing that we both care so much about. It came out. It was hugely popular online. It’s not something that you could actually print out. First of all, I think we had written about twenty thousand words. The final guide ends up being eight thousand words. A lot of stuff had ended up on the cutting room floor. We felt like this stuff is really good. It deserves another life. It’s really important. We had this idea.
We really wanted to turn this material into a book. It felt like a book that had been missing. Look, nobody needs to know how to teach their child to read. Not nobody needs to know, teachers need to know that. Parents need to know how to support that. They usually get that from the teacher. How do you actually get a kid to love reading? How do you have a child who gravitates toward a book when they have that bored afternoon as opposed to pick up an iPhone or do something else with their time? I use that iPhone example because I think that it’s gotten especially more difficult in a digital age when there are so many other distractions. There are so many other options. It’s hard for parents. Parents think technology’s really important. “It’s really important that my child be tech-savvy.” There's a lot of economic insecurity that is completely understandable with parents. “My child might need to do other things.” They might need to go to a cello lesson. They might need to play a sport. They might need to hone a talent with that time as opposed to reading. Yet at the same time, I think most parents know that reading is essential, essential not just for a child’s academic success, but really essential toward making a person whole.
It’s through immersion in stories that we become who we are. One of the reasons why books as a form, as a medium, as a way of conveying a story is so much more powerful than a film or TV or YouTube -- I like all those things. I don't really like the YouTube videos, except when they're of cats. I do like TV and movies. Here's the difference. When you are reading Harry Potter for the first time and you, let's hope, have not seen the movie yet, any of the movies, you're thinking, “What does Harry look like? What does Hermione sound like? What does Hogwarts seem like? What does the Gryffindor Hall look like? How does these paintings that move work?” You, as the reader, as the child reader, you're coming up with those images yourself. You're filling out that picture in your mind. You have JK Rowling’s words to guide you.
When you read, it’s truly interactive. You are creating that story. That book is read by millions of people. Every single person reads it their own way. Everything in that book looks differently, sounds differently to each reader. It’s a reflection of who that person is. A book is not a book until it’s read and until it’s read by an individual, whereas with a movie or a television show, while we all have our own opinions of it, we’re being shown. We’re being shown Emma Watson’s rendition of Hermione. We’re being shown the cinematographer’s sweeping view of Hogwarts. We’re being shown the special effects rendition of what a Avada Kedavra does to a person. We’re hearing the score. All of that is being delivered to us. We’re not creating it.
That act of creation, that act of imagining, that sense of immersion is why books tend to stay with us for so long. It’s why the books of our childhood stick with us for years. It’s why we all remember what was the book that made me become a reader. What was the book I wanted to hear again and again? What was that first novel, whether it was A Wrinkle in Time or Narnia, whatever it might have been, what was that book that I just wanted to be in that book? We all had those kinds of memories. As an adult, you want to have that for your child. The idea of the book is not necessarily to help your child decode phonetical terms and learn the mechanics of reading as it is how does my child end up knowing that feeling, getting that, so that stays with him or her for the rest of their lives?
Zibby: Wow. When does that come out?
Pamela: That comes out beginning of September.
Zibby: I can't wait. Any parting advice to aspiring writers?
Pamela: I was reading something last night. It was the editor’s letter in T magazine coming out on Sunday. The editor’s letter was by Hanya Yanagihara, who is not only the editor of T, but also a novelist in her own right. She wrote People in the Trees and A Little Life. She was saying that after a day of working in the office, she comes home and she writes at night. You have to actually do the work. You have to actually sit and write. I agree with that. I also think for me, writing is something that I really want to do, that I enjoy doing, that I look for the time to do, and that if I don't do it, I don't feel fulfilled. I know that that's not the same for every writer. I know there are writers who have writer’s block and who find it difficult and who maybe don't enjoy it. I would say to try to find, at least for me, my advice is to find the kind of writing that feels like writing that you have to do, and not because you're supposed to, but because you want to. You need to do that writing, and to figure out what that kind of writing is and go with that.
Zibby: Thank you so much. This was amazing insights and advice. All of it was fantastic. Thank you so much for spending the time.
Pamela: Thanks for having me.
Zibby: Of course. Take care. Buh-bye.
Pamela: You too. Bye.