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'Times' Book Review Editor Shares Her Love Of Reading In 'My Life With Bob'

Pamela Paul of The New York Times talks about her own new book, which chronicles every book she's read since she was 17 years old. Even if a work isn't great, she refuses to brush it aside cavalierly.


Other segments from the episode on May 23, 2017

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 23, 2017: Interview with Richard Barnett; Interview with Pamela Paul; Review of two music albums "Harry Styles" and "Waiting on a Song".



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I don't usually gasp while preparing my interviews, but I gasped several times while looking at the illustrations in the books by my guest Richard Barnett. He's a medical historian who's just completed a trilogy of books on the history of disease, surgery and dentistry. The illustrations are historic drawings, paintings, woodcuts and photos, dating back decades, or in most cases centuries, of tumors, pox, leprosy, incisions, amputations and so on. In most cases, the illustrations were originally intended for medical students and practitioners. The final book in the trilogy is called "The Smile Stealers: The Fine And Foul Art Of Dentistry," and it includes illustrations of rotting teeth, early dental instruments, Etruscan dentures, Dutch paintings and more. Barnett teaches at Cambridge University's Pembroke College.

Richard Barnett, welcome to FRESH AIR. Reading your books, I was just kind of almost at war with myself between wanting to look at all the illustrations and being so kind of repelled by them because some of the images are so gruesome. I want to look because the body is capable of such strange and beautiful and gruesome things. And, you know, because your books deal with surgery and cancers and diseases and pox, there's a lot of hideous stuff in there, a lot of irregularities. And, you know, I want to see it, and at the same time, I'm afraid of scaring myself. I'm afraid that these images will stay with me and that the next time I have a little rash, I'll be thinking about the worst-case scenario (laughter) which - well, I have just witnessed in your book. So what do you think the value is for non-medical professionals of seeing these images?

RICHARD BARNETT: Well, I think these images show us the outside of the inside. They show us a side of the human body that, if we're lucky, we never get to see. And I think there are a number of different kinds of value from seeing these images. Firstly, as an academic historian, I'd have to say they are deeply enlightening about many different kinds of history - the way that we've thought about disease in the body most obviously but also aspects of aesthetic history as well, changing conventions of depicting the body, especially I think depicting differences in gender and race, which is perhaps a subject we can come to think more about.

So historically, I think they're fascinating - aesthetically as well. I thought a lot about what you might call the bodily sublime or the anatomical sublime. These certainly aren't pretty images, but I do think many of them are beautiful the way in which something like a lupus, various kinds of skin disease, the body flaid, the body put on display, the body disfigured, can be a very powerful and a very moving kind of beauty. And I think it can lead to a kind of sympathy as well. Something I'm very interested in is the question of how do we look at these images.

I think there's a certain ethical weight that comes with these images. We're looking at images of people made in a time well before any notion of informed consent. Very often, we don't know their names. We don't know anything about them other than their diagnoses. They exist in history almost as, you know, incompetent or broken body parts. So I think a bigger question here about how any historian relates to the human beings they study, the human beings who lived and breathed and felt and died, how do you treat them with dignity?

GROSS: So in the books that you've done with these historic medical illustrations, is there an image that has most haunted you?

BARNETT: Honestly, no, but I daresay the two images that stay with most readers of these books are the cover images that we chose for the first two in the series, "The Sick Rose" on the history of disease and "Crucial Interventions" on the history of surgery. The image on the front of "The Sick Rose" is of a young woman dying of cholera in Vienna in 1831. And we were far from the first book to reproduce this image. It's widely used in histories of cholera. But the more you look into it, the more unsettling and the more moving it becomes. It's firstly one of a pair of images. The first image is of the young woman in health, looking very healthy, very rosy-cheeked, indeed very beautiful. The second image was made shortly before she died, and she is evidently moribund. She is extremely sick. The skin is drawn over her features, and she's clearly in a very bad way indeed.

And the more I thought about this image, the more I wrote about it, the more intriguing the nature of the relationship between the artist, the doctor and the patient seemed to me. I wanted to know how this image was made. Was it made retrospectively? Was it, as it were, an imagining, a remembrance of what this young woman had looked like in health and in disease? Or was the artist sitting by her bed? That's a very strange kind of encounter. It's a kind of encounter that a novelist might try and imagine. What would have been the commerce, as it were? What would have been the conversation between this dying young woman and the artist trying to record her. And I was also intrigued by the way in which he gives her so much character. There's a lot in this image that doesn't, so to speak, need to be there. There's a lot in this image that isn't communicating medical knowledge. For example, there's great attention paid to her hairstyle and to the little bit of her dress that we can see.

So I was fascinated by the idea that the artist here might have been trying firstly to give a sense of verisimilitude, firstly to give a sense that you're not just looking at an abstract case here. You're looking at a real person dying of a real disease. But I think to any sensitive viewer, one has to think as well about whether he's trying to capture something of her personality, whether there's something here about trying to preserve, record even a little bit of this woman who very soon will be gone.

GROSS: Let's talk about your new book on the history of dentistry. And you write in that pain in the head can seem unbearably close to the core of who we are, to which I can say, yes (laughter). Is that part of why you wanted to write the book?

BARNETT: Well, I think dentistry of all the medical professions has always generated the most fear, certainly continues to generate the most fear. I think very few of us go into a dentist's surgery with a light heart and a spring in our step. So I wanted to think about the place of fear, the place of pain but also the place of attempts to mitigate that in the history of dentistry. And I was very struck as I researched the history of dentistry that it's the story of technique.

It's the story of getting better at solving medical problems, practical problems with the teeth. But it's also the history of making dentistry and crucially dentists acceptable to ordinary middle-class folk, moving away from that medieval idea of the charlatan in the town square holding a bloody tooth in a pair of pliers and moving toward something that is more respectful, more expert, more professional but also crucially that takes more account of the patient's feelings.

GROSS: Well, your book made me think how in the past before dentistry was really an art and a medical science that people lived with a lot of dental pain and with few teeth (laughter) because your teeth would be extracted or they'd fall out or they'd decay. And so if you lived long enough, a lot of people were toothless.

BARNETT: Absolutely. If you look at the earliest surviving human fossils, they bear mute witness to the kind of suffering that human beings and hominids have always experienced from their teeth if they lived more than perhaps 30 or 40 years untreated. And certainly, if you look at the average working person in Europe perhaps in the 15th or 16th century, they probably wouldn't have most of their teeth after the age of 30 or 40. They would sort of gradually fall out or decay, and the amount of pain involved in that must have been absolutely terrible.

This is one area where there's a sort of paradoxical social dimension to dentistry as well. Very often, it's the rich who've suffered most from problems like caries and tooth decay. And this is because the rich were able to afford all of the new exciting commodities that were coming out of the mystic East, as Europeans would have seen it in this period, so things like sugar, for example. If you look at the example of Queen Elizabeth I of England, she, from a very young age, became addicted to sweets and toffees and sweet meats and all sorts of things. And the immediate result of this was that her teeth turned black, and she suffered very, very badly from dental decay and all kinds of problems throughout her life.

So I certainly wouldn't want to make the case that the poor were better off. They certainly, of course, had many problems to face, but if we're looking at the people who suffered the most from that kind of what we think of as the modern problems of dentistry, the problems of, you know, sugary drinks and too many sweets, it was the rich who were really the first to suffer these problems.

GROSS: One of the things that surprised me is that, you know, dating back to ancient history, there are illustrations of kind of makeshift dentures that were made for people who had lost critical teeth.

BARNETT: Early dentistry could be surprisingly sophisticated. We've got evidence from ancient Indian culture and especially from ancient Roman culture of fairly sophisticated, fairly elegant dentures being made. We're talking here about what a modern dentist would call a bridge, so a partial replacement for a couple of - one or two missing teeth, generally clipped or tied to the surviving teeth. A lot of these survive in ancient Rome because that was a habit in Roman culture of removing any prostheses or jewelry before a body was cremated and then putting it back in with the ashes, so quite a few of these survive. And they really are quite magnificent.

They're not quite the sort of thing a modern dentist would be proud of, but they're certainly sophisticated attempts to solve a problem practically but also to solve it aesthetically as well. This is a really important word, I think, in the history of dentistry. So much of it is about aesthetics. So much of it is about appearance, not only restoring a functioning mouth, but restoring something like beauty and respectability.

GROSS: Which leads to what were false teeth made of hundreds of years ago? And you use the example of George Washington's dentist, John Greenwood. What are some of the things he made false teeth out of?

BARNETT: Good heavens, yes. Washington, in his later years, was walking around with almost the history of America in his mouth, one might almost say world history in his mouth. His teeth were made of various materials. One of the most common materials for false teeth in this period is what is called walrus ivory. So these are the long tusks of Arctic walruses. This was a sort of byproduct, one might say, of the Greenland whaling trade. So you've got that kind of trade, that kind of exploitation of world resources going on.

Another very common and really rather macabre source of teeth was the dead. There's a long tradition in Britain of what were called Waterloo teeth after the great Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The idea was that these were teeth that were supposed to have been pulled from the mouths of dead soldiers. Now, in fact, although this was a - this was as it were a kind of marketing routine, this was a way of selling the public the idea of, you know, fresh healthy young teeth from soldiers who were killed on the battlefield.

In fact, most of these teeth most likely came from morgues. Of course, there was no reason to go all the way to a battlefield to get fresh teeth. You could go to any morgue or undertaker and find a fairly good supply of dead bodies. So, in fact, most of the people who were proudly walking around with the teeth of dead heroes in their mouths were most likely walking around with the teeth of the outcast dead in their mouths.

Washington's dentures were also partly made out of silver as well. And, of course, most silver in this period came from South America, a lot of it from the great mine of Potosi. So it's quite possible that George Washington was walking around with a - really a history of his age in his mouth.

GROSS: You have pages of illustrations of early dental instruments that were used for various procedures, including extractions. What do those instruments tell you about what dentistry was like before modern dentistry?

BARNETT: It's very striking that in some ways the instruments haven't changed enormously. Extraction of a tooth is still a violent business, as any modern dentist will tell you. When there's a lot that can be done to make that better, most obviously anesthetics. But the basic business of extracting teeth from jaws, it always has taken a great deal of brute muscle power. We can see this in the evolution of the equipment used for it. Go back to ancient Greece and Rome, and they had special pliers carefully made out of lead.

The great problem when you're trying to extract a tooth is if the tooth shatters, the root can be left in the jaw, and with the root, quite a lot of the decay. And it's much harder to get purchase on that. So the great challenge is extracting the tooth without shattering the enamel crown of it. So Greek and Roman dentists would use lead pliers with the idea that lead is a little bit softer, and it's less likely to shatter the tooth. But it's really in the medieval period that I think we have the most terrifying instruments for extracting teeth.

The most famous of these is called the pelican. The pelican is based on a device used by barrel-makers to get iron hoops down over the staves of a barrel. If you've ever seen a barrel being made, it's basically about using loops of iron to kind of bring the staves of wood together. So the Pelican was essentially a kind of hook combined with a lever. And you'd sort of clip the hook onto the teeth and kind of pull the lever back. And it must have been an agonizing process, especially if the tooth was well lodged in the jaw.

There's a point here about the position in which dentistry used to take place. We're now used to if we go to the dentist, we're used to lying in a fairly comfortable chair in a fairly sort of comfortable prone position. But early dentists would have got their patients into whatever was the most practical position for levering teeth out of their jaws, so lying on the floor or head between the knees was quite a common position as well. So all things considered, this must have been an extremely painful and a most undignified kind of activity.

GROSS: When you say head between the knees, you mean the patient's head between the dentist's knees?

BARNETT: Well, I suppose it depends how well it went but yes, that's what I meant.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK. If you're just joining us, my guest is Richard Barnett. He's a medical historian who's just completed a trilogy of books about the history of disease, the history of surgery and now the history of dentistry. The dentistry book, the new one is called "The Smile Stealers." This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Richard Barnett. His new book, "The Smile Stealers: The Fine And Foul Art Of Dentistry," completes his trilogy of books on the history of disease, surgery and dentistry. Before becoming a medical historian, he went to med school.

How much of a chance as a medical student before you dropped out of med school did you have to observe the kind of, you know, viscera and disease and surgery that your books are about?

BARNETT: In Britain, at the time, medical school still followed the old preclinical clinical model. So in the first two years that I was at medical school, it was largely an academic education. So it was lectures, and very strikingly, it was the dissection room. That made a big impression. I still think dissection is one of the greatest privileges I've ever had. There are no other legal settings in which one can open up a human body and learn about it.

I've always had great admiration for those who donate their bodies to medical schools. It really is a tremendous act of charity and one that is enormously appreciated by medical students. It was a chance to confront death. I don't want to be too pretentious here and call it a kind of Hamlet moment, you know, Hamlet confronting the skull of his dead friend Yorick.

But there was a sense of being able to have laid before you on a table - on a mortuary table - everything that it was to be human or everything it is to be human, you know, 6 feet and a couple hundred pounds of flesh. And it does - what I really appreciated was that it was a space in which you could kind of return.

To the idea of dissection is - in English medical schools, anyway - that you do it over a couple of years. You gradually over the course of a term dissect certain parts of the body, and then you return next term to another part of the body. So it's a very gentle, very low-key way of I suppose living with the dead, coming to terms with the dead and also getting over that and then learning.

I think learning to see, learning that peculiar kind of clinical or even pathological gaze that one needs when looking at the chaos of a dead body to reduce it to some sort of order, to reduce it to something you can understand and say, well, this is the structure I'm looking at, and this is how it functions, and this is how it goes wrong and so on.

So I really appreciated that kind of encounter. It's - looking back, I don't think I had these thoughts at the time, but looking back, it was very interesting to reflect on the anonymity of the dead. That in some ways this was a very important relationship that went on over two years with somebody whose name I didn't know but with whose body I and my colleagues were more intimate than anybody had been during that person's life.

You know, we saw more of him. We explored more of him. We took him apart to try and work out, you know, what made him tick and what had stopped him ticking, as it were. So it's a fascinating and I think unsettling in the best possible way kind of relationship. And it's one that I've returned to in my mind and in my thoughts many times over the last couple of decades.

GROSS: Were you mentally prepared - were you prepared by your teachers in any way for your first encounter with a corpse that you're going to dissect?

BARNETT: Yes. Medical schools, as you can imagine, are very careful to make sure that their students are prepared for this. One of the most important aspects of this concerns the face. What - certainly, again, in English medical schools, the order in which dissection proceeds one begins with the abdomen and the chest. And the head of the body that you are dissecting is covered. And this goes on for, I think - my memory's a little fuzzy, but it was certainly a couple of terms, if not an entire year.

So again, you have the chance to sort of get used to, come to terms with - and there are - I remember that it was sort of widely advertised that if one needed to talk to a member of staff about this experience and how it was affecting you, you could do so. So, no, there was a great effort on the part of the medical school authorities to make this a constructive rather than a destructive and challenging experience.

GROSS: So the impression I get from your books is that the surgeon used to be considered lower than the physician - that the surgeon was seen more as like the mechanic who would, like, you know, step in or the craftsman who'd step in. But it was the surgeon who was, like, directing it and who was the more educated person. Why was it seen that way?

BARNETT: There's a very long division in the history of Western medicine between surgeons who are seen as fundamentally craftsmen or tradesmen and physicians who are seen as educated professional gentlemen. Partly, this comes down to education. The way for a long time in the European tradition that you get to be a physician is by going to university. So you become an heir to this long-learned classical tradition. You study in Latin, and you get a degree at the end of it. So you acquire all of the trappings of a learned gentleman, whereas, if you wanted to be a surgeon, you learn surgery through an apprenticeship. So you become a surgeon in the way that you become a butcher or a baker or a candlestick maker. It's through experience. It's through what you might call tacit knowledge rather than any kind of higher-status education.

But I think there's more to it than that. I think we can see an emotional and a social aspect to this, as well. Of course, surgeons are associated with blood, pain, death, suffering of all kinds. So I think surgery rather like butchery, rather like professional executioners - there are people who it seem to be useful to have around, but they're not people you want to have dinner. They're not people you want living next to you. So there are people who carry a certain kind of stigma because of the work that they do.

In fact, if you take the word surgeon back to its Greek root, it comes from the Greek word kheiros (ph) or cheiros (ph), which means hand. So you can very directly think of surgeons as the hand embodying a certain amount of expertise, an amount of skill but very much under the control of the head. And it's the physicians, the educated learned gentleman, who wanted to see themselves as the head of medicine.

GROSS: Richard Barnett, thank you so much for talking with us.

BARNETT: Absolutely my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Richard Barnett's new book is called, "The Smile Stealers: The Fine And Foul Art Of Dentistry." After we take a short break, we'll hear from Pamela Paul, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, who has a new book of her own about her life as a reader. And Ken Tucker will review new solo albums by Harry Styles of One Direction and Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our next guest, Pamela Paul, is the editor of The New York Times Book Review and oversees book coverage at The Times, which is to say she's surrounded by books. This seems like a great job for someone who read so much as a child that by the age of 10, she asked repeatedly if she could get a job at her local library.

When Paul was 17, she decided to give up writing a diary and, instead, keep a list of all the books she read. She's been updating that list ever since. She calls it Bob, B-O-B, the acronym for her book of books. Now Pamela Paul has a new memoir about her lifelong relationship with books. It's called "My Life With Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book Of Books, Plot Ensues." She spoke with FRESH AIR's Sam Briger, who produces all our book interviews.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Pamela Paul, welcome to FRESH AIR. You say that over the years, revealing the fact that you had a Bob to other people could be a dicey proposition, that some people just didn't understand why you were writing down all the books you'd read.

PAMELA PAUL: Yeah, well, some people really didn't like the fact that I wasn't writing more than that. I remember one boyfriend in particular just thought it was worthless without sort of having an essay accompanying each entry about what the book meant to me and my personal reflections. And I felt terrible once he leveled that criticism. And I started keeping a book like that. And that book lasted for two entries. And the relationship didn't last much longer.

And then I wrote about this in The New York Times Book Review in 2012 in an essay on the back page. And the reactions I got were really interesting, and they kind of fell into three categories. One was, you know, wow, I wish I'd done that and sort of filled with regret that people hadn't done it. The second was that kind of a little bit annoyed that it wasn't something more than what it was. Then the third one was I do that, too. And, of course, those were the best.

And a lot of those responses came via email but also in snail mail. And some people sent in, you know, images from their own book of books.

BRIGER: That's interesting.

PAUL: Yeah. Nobody knew that anyone else did that kind of thing.

BRIGER: Yeah, so did you have trepidation about writing about it for The New York Times when you did?

PAUL: Oh, my God, are you kidding? Yes, Yes. Anyone can see it. And it's totally embarrassing because it includes things, you know, high-minded things like Faulkner and Joyce. But it also includes, like, a memoir by the roadie from "The Doors," you know, (laughter) and, like, really - real teenage fare.

BRIGER: You're not only a voracious reader but you also like the physical aspect of books. And, you know, of course at your position at The New York Times, you have access to a huge amount of free books. You write, (reading) like all collectors, I exist in a perpetual state of want that bears no reasonable relationship to the quantity of unread books mounting up on my shelves. How do you feel about having books on your shelves that you haven't read?

Does that stress you out?

PAUL: It doesn't stress me out in so far as I continue to believe - again, this might be naivete - but I believe that there is a future there for me when I'm done with everything, you know? Like, every box is checked off somehow and my days are now empty and all I get to do is read and watch movies. That's probably completely delusional. But I continue to have it. And that state of want and deprivation really stems from what I felt like was really book-bare environment growing up.

I just - my mother didn't - we didn't have a lot of books in the house growing up. Because we lived so close to the library, whenever I wanted a book, the answer was, you know, get it from the library. And I had a really meager allowance, even for the time. My allowance for a long time was a dime a week, which, you know, really doesn't go far...

BRIGER: Even in the '80s (laughter).

PAUL: Yeah, it doesn't take you much beyond, like, Tootsie Rolls. So getting a book was, like, a really big deal for me. And I would save up, as a child, to buy used "Nancy Drews" from a local used bookstore. And I think that was the moment - those were the books that made me really think of the book as an object because there are many different editions of "Nancy Drews," even at that time and there have been a bunch subsequent which, like, modernized the illustrations and whatnot.

But I only liked a particular version. To me, like, it's just without question the best. They have yellow bindings, yellow spines. I have talked to people who distain that particular (laughter) - those particular editions for the earlier blue ones. But the blue ones, to me, were too old. They were not in nice enough state when I was growing up. I wanted those yellow ones, and I did not want the modern paperback ones with the new, you know, sort of hipper illustrations. Those, to me, were just so completely subpar.

BRIGER: Well, let's talk about your job. You are the editor of The New York Times Book Review. And you also oversee book coverage for the entire paper. How is it decided what books get reviewed for the three permanent reviewers at the news organization?

PAUL: So there are two very different systems between the Sunday Book Review and The Daily critics. And they're kind of opposite in a way. With the critics, the chief critic is Michiko Kakutani. She gets the first crack at the books. And she really decides what it is that she wants to review. So you begin with the critic. With the Book Review assignments, we start with the book. And when we have a book, we are - one of the most creative things after deciding which books deserve a review or not, the next big decision - and this is one that I'm very involved in - is who should review it?

And that is a really interesting process. Sometimes we know or we're pretty confident that one of the critics will review it. So we know, OK, if Michi is going to review this book, what might we do that's different? If we think that there should be a second review, who should review it that would provide a different take? Maybe it is an established book critic, maybe it's a novelist or a poet. We had Bill Clinton review the fourth installment of Bob Caro's LBJ biography. We have had Patti Smith review a Murakami novel. Paul Simon reviewed Stephen Sondheim's memoir.

That's the part that's sort of the most delicious and creative because you just think, like, who would I most want to read on this book? And then also, who would New York Times readers most want to read on this book?

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Pamela Paul, the editor of The New York Times Book Review and author of the new book "My Life With Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book Of Books, Plot Ensues." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Pamela Paul, the editor of The New York Times Book Review. She oversees book coverage at The Times. She's also the author of the new book "My Life With Bob."

BRIGER: How do you deal with a situation when you're looking at a book that has a particular political slant and you have to choose who to review it? Do you sometimes - like, you'd probably don't want to just choose someone who completely agrees with that - or on the other side, you don't want to deal with someone who's just going to be opposed to it.

PAUL: Yeah. That's - those are tough assignments. And I personally find them among the most challenging, but I think also among the most exciting and interesting because we don't believe in a set-up review where you sort of hire someone you know is going to do a takedown because they are on the other side. On the other hand, you don't want this sort of just sycophantic agree, agree, agree, you know, I-love-this-person-because-I-vote-the-same-way kind of review.

So we try to find people that we know are fair and independent-minded and able to assess a book on its merits. And, you know, what has become more difficult about that is that particularly in these highly partisan times, people are very much set in their, you know, own camps. And it's hard to find - I mean, there are certain reviewers that - people that we miss - I mean, Christopher Hitchens, for example, he reviewed a lot for us. And he's someone who just - he's irreplaceable as a writer, but - and as a critic. But you never kind of knew what his take would be because he so often was contrarian and surprising. Michael Kinsley is a bit that way. There are some critics out there who we don't know what they'll think, and so that's always interesting.

And in general, I would say - especially for fiction - we try to find someone who we think will be open to a book. We're not trying to find people who are going to take down a book because generally speaking, when we assign a book for review, we're doing that because we, the editors, think this is a book that's worthwhile. We think, you know, of all the books out there, and we assign, you know, only about 1 percent of those books published in a given year. Of all the books out there, this is one that matters. This is the one that is either a new voice or an author people care about or should know about.

BRIGER: Well, have you ever commissioned a review from someone and they send you back some sort of takedown and you find out afterwards that they have a personal conflict with the author?

PAUL: That has happened, and with luck we - I mean, we really do try to suss out any kind of conflict of interest beforehand. And it's not always possible, and certain people have different standards from our own on about what a conflict of interest may be. There are other publications - I won't name any - that, you know, we can see people reviewing books that we turn down as assignments because we felt there was a conflict of interest. And then we see it run elsewhere. So we know that not everyone has the same standards as The Times.

That's not to say that we don't make mistakes or that we don't find things out after the fact. And if we find out before the review runs, we'll kill it. And that's something that we never want to do because that's a lost opportunity then for that author. There are some books that never got reviewed because we found out that there was a conflict of interest, and by the time we found it out - sort of too late to reassign it elsewhere. And, again, it's pretty funny sometimes what people don't consider to be a conflict of interest. I've asked people to review something, and they've said, oh, I'd love to review that. I gave it a great blurb. And I'd be happy to write a full review which, of course, you know, you can't do or they share an agent.

There was one person - I mean, it was a pretty funny email, I have to say, in which they were like, oh, yes, you know, I totally could review this book. I did used to live with this person, but we're no longer sleeping together. And it's fine. I could, you know, completely, independently assess it, and that's a true story.

BRIGER: Well, what's your take on blurbs because we've had an experience here at least once where there was a positive blurb about a book by someone, and then we found out that it was taken completely out of context, and the person otherwise thought that the book was suspect?

PAUL: Oh, yeah (laughter). Well, you know, we can see blurbs from our own reviews - like, OK - the difference between blurbs and sort of the extractions from a review that you'll see on an ad, and, you know, you'll have like a really nasty negative review of a book. But they'll - there might be a sentence in which they say, you know, this is a pleasure in it's despicability or something. And then the quote will be a pleasure, you know, in the ad.

So, you know, there's a lot of creativity around that. But, yeah, there can be a whole thing about blurbs. At The Times - journalists at The Times are not allowed to blurb books, and I think that's for a good reason because it does end up posing a lot of conflicts of interests for us as writers and reporters and editors to sort of be publicly endorsing books before they come out.

BRIGER: So you write in your book that when you were asked to write your first book review - and I don't know if this was for the Economist or not - you handed it in, and your editor said something like, oh, dear, let me show you how to write a book review. So what did they teach you?

PAUL: The thing about a book review, it's a very particular form of writing, and not everyone knows how to write it. And one of the stunning things as an editor is to see many excellent writers, you know, whether they're a novelist or a poet hand in a book review and you're like, wait, what? You're such a good reporter or a novelist or short-story writer, like, how could you have handed in this thing?

You didn't even tell me, you know, whether the book was good or not. So there are a lot of different ways to write a book review. And you can write it very formulaically sort of ticking off all the things that you're supposed to do in a book review which is, you know, give a sense of what the book is about, but don't reveal too much of the plot, quote from the text so people can get a sense of what the writing is. You know, people want to know what the voice sounds like, how the, you know, sentences are structured, let people know - readers know what the author does well and what they don't do well.

If someone is coming out with a biography of Jefferson who has been written about before - there have been previous biographies of Jefferson - you want to know, well, why this biography of Jefferson? What did the historian or the biographer know or find - do - get research on that hasn't previously been uncovered? What kind of research did they do? Do they have a different argument? Is this a new assessment? You want to know about access for books that required, again, a lot of interviewing. Were they - if it's a biography of someone who is alive, did they have access to that person? Was it an authorized biography or not? And you want, as well, for something a little bit more ineffable which is you want to feel as a reader that the reviewer engaged with the work. You know? I hate something that feels like a phoned-in book report, and that's something, too.

A lot of people don't know the difference between a book report and a book review. And they don't know what a literary criticism is in a scholarly journal versus literary criticism in a newspaper book review. And so a lot of it is - you know, there are certain things to sort of tick off, and then there are certain ways to mess with that formula. I mean, one of my favorite book reviews was - that I edited - was by - a review by Michael Lewis of Timothy Geithner's memoir. And the first sentence was something like he's written a good book, let's get that out of the way.

You know, so right at the top, he's sort of telling you, like, this book is good. And you'd be amazed by how many reviewers, even reviewers who write a very positive review, are withholding of their praise. There are many instances in which someone hands in a book review, and you read it, and you think like, I can't tell if they like this or not.

But in the email, they're like this was such a wonderful book, thank you so much for assigning it. I loved X, Y and Z. And you think, well, why did you not say that in the book review? So those were a few of the things that I really did not know before I'd written a book review of my own.

BRIGER: Well, I know your husband is - following your lead and has his own version of Bob called Blob, which is the big list of books. Have your kids taken up their own lists?

PAUL: They have, but they don't keep it as well as I think they should. And I don't want to be too - I don't want to berate them for it because I think that keeping a book of books should be voluntary and a pleasure. To me, reading is something that you get to do, not something that you have to do. And I wish that schools and teachers and parents sort of thought of it more in those terms because I think that that's infectious.

And one of the things that we've done with our kids is, like, they have two bedtimes. So the early bedtime is like if you just want to go to bed, like, your bed time's, you know, 8 o'clock. But if you want to stay up and read in bed, you can stay up until 8:30.

And, you know, to me, like if someone had said that to me when I was a child, like, I think I would have passed out from happiness because, you know, when I was a kid, you, like, you went under your covers with a flashlight and read because you weren't supposed to do that. So I feel like I'm like, you know, reaching into the cookie jar for my kids and passing out the goodies.

BRIGER: Well, Pamela Paul, thanks for coming on FRESH AIR.

PAUL: Oh, thanks so much for having me.

GROSS: Pamela Paul spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Paul was the editor of The New York Times book review and author of the new book "My Life With Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book Of Books, Plot Ensues." After we take a short break, Ken Tucker will review new albums by Harry Styles and Dan Auerbach. This is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. Harry Styles is a member of the teen pop group One Direction, and he's just released his first solo album, which has topped the album charts. Dan Auerbach is one half of the rock act The Black Keys. He has just released a new solo album. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of both new releases, finding common ground in the two musicians' quest for authenticity.


HARRY STYLES: (Singing) Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. She's got a family in Carolina. So far away, but she says I remind her of home. Feeling oh so far from home. She never saw herself...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Harry Styles presents his first solo album titled "Harry Styles" as earnest labor, a skip through eras of pop music that preceded his birth. You can hear how closely he's listened to Queen and T. Rex and David Bowie and especially Elton John. Listen to the way Styles' first single, "Sign Of The Times," begins as a turgid ballad, only to take off in a surge of emotion that recalls Elton's "Rocket Man."


STYLES: (Singing) Just stop your crying, it's a sign of the times. Welcome to the final show. Hope you're wearing your best clothes. You can't bribe the door on your way to the sky. You look pretty good down here, but you ain't really good.

We never learn. We been here before. Why are we always stuck and running from the bullets, the bullets? We never learn. We been here before. Why are we always stuck and running from the bullets, the bullets?

Just stop your crying, it's a sign of the times. We got to get away from here. We got to get away from here.

TUCKER: That song is already a hit, a chunk of highly effective melodrama that "American Idol" contestants will be massacring for years to come. Knowing he's got the youth market sewn up, Styles is trying to sell older listeners on his new work. He's following a frayed playbook, one in which you stop in at Rolling Stone magazine to peddle your wares. Rolling Stone complied by enlisting Cameron Crowe, who first came to prominence transcribing the infinite wisdom of the Eagles and Jackson Browne for that magazine in the '70s. Crowe interviewed Styles and confirmed Harry's sincerity to an audience that still views boy bands and pop stars as automatic sellouts.


STYLES: (Singing) Same lips red, same eyes blue, same white shirt, couple more tattoos but it's not you. And it's not me. Tastes so sweet, looks so real, sounds like something that I used to feel. But I can't touch what I see. We're not who we used to be. We're not who we used to be. We're just two ghosts standing in the place of you and me trying to remember how it feels to have a heartbeat.

TUCKER: That's Harry Styles. Now listen to Dan Auerbach who has spent much of his time in The Black Keys making bluesy rock 'n' roll rooted in earlier areas of hard rock. "Waiting On A Song" isn't his first solo album, but it's the first one in which he sounds like he wants a big pop hit, if only this was 1972.


DAN AUERBACH: (Singing) I been thinking. I been humming. I been picking, and I been strumming just waiting, waiting on a song. I been hitching, and I been thumbing. I can almost hear one coming. I'm just waiting, waiting on a song. I looked down in my pocket.

TUCKER: That's the album's title song, a catchy little thing he co-wrote with three other guys, one of whom is the great singer-songwriter John Prine. Auerbach went to Nashville to make this record. He had the means to start his own recording studio there, and he hired a passel of veteran musicians who've played with acts, such as Elvis Presley and Duane Eddy to record with him. Heck, Auerbach even hired Duane Eddy himself to play guitar on this album. It's a little like buying your way into one concept of authenticity.


AUERBACH: (Singing) Last night, you seemed to deal with it all right. Girl, you know that I meant well. I promise you that I won't tell. Your touch is electrical. I'm so susceptible. We know we have always been living in sin, living in sin, living in sin, living in sin. It's not right.

TUCKER: Auerbach's challenge as a solo artist is the opposite of Harry Styles'. Auerbach is grappling with a need to transcend the self-consciousness of The Black Keys hipster blues. He does it by immersing himself in other genres of pop music.


AUERBACH: (Singing) I moved from New York with my boogie board and bought a big house on the ocean. Stopped being me. I took the shoes off my feet just because I took a notion. My hair gave in so my beard came out caused quite a face of commotion. It grew past my lips and then it covered my mouth so no one can read my emotions. Malibu Man isn't my friend. Got the world in his hands, Malibu Man.

TUCKER: Styles and Auerbach could not be more different in where they come from musically, but their new albums meet in a middle ground of forced humility. Trying to convince you of the seriousness of their studies in pop, they drain off the kind of spontaneity that can result in great work. But they managed to fashion a few enjoyable replicas of energetic work.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed new solo albums by Harry Styles and Dan Auerbach. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, I'll talk with Aziz Ansari about co-writing and co-starring in season two of his Netflix comedy series "Master Of None." Among the things his character deals with this season, his decision to eat pork in front of his parents who are Muslim immigrants from India.


AZIZ ANSARI: (As Dev) You know what? I'm not religious, and I don't think it's right to pretend to be.

SHOUKATH ANSARI: (As Ramesh) What do you mean you are not religious?

ANSARI: (As Dev) It's just not for me.

GROSS: I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyillis Myers, Amy Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.


AUERBACH: (Singing) You only got a couple miles to go if you're trying to drive me insane. I saw you crack a smile about a week ago in the middle of the pouring rain. So I climbed the cliffs of Dover to go dry out.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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