A CONVERSATION WITH BOB ON BOOKS

I don’t know about you, but every so often I need to shake things up in my solitary, literary life. The days get a little too long, and the weeks and months go by slower and with more aggravation than the seven-year itch. Sometimes the latest read off the old to-be-read pile leaves you exhausted, and the stack of paperback grows and grows while leaving you evermore intimidated. When those times come it can be best to hit a secondary pleasure to the art of reading: talking with your friends about books and their magic.

It is with that mindset that I decided to reach out to one of my newest friends I made this year, a man who inspired me to take on my own blogging journey through reading. That man is Bob Trube, and he hosts an online community that is simply named “Bob on Books”. Join us as we embark on our bookish conversation.

Why don’t you introduce yourself to the audience Bob? Tell us a little about who you are, and if you care to say so, what was the first book you read?

I’m a lifelong Ohioan (home of many great authors). I grew up in Youngstown and have lived in Toledo and Cleveland before landing in Columbus where my wife and I have lived the last 30 years. I grew up in a home valuing both the love of learning and of God, great preparation for a career in collegiate ministry. First book that I can remember is the Dick and Jane series we used to learn to read. My mom was a reader, and as soon as I could read, I started reading some of the children’s adventures in our shelves like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Black Beauty.

You are the brain-force behind “Bob on Books,” which as of this writing has amassed a following that is right at the tens of thousands. What inspired you to go into writing and blogging about books?

It was a way to remember what I’d read! I began with Goodreads and discovered that friends appreciated the reviews. One colleague said half-jokingly that I read so he didn’t have to. I think what it came down to was that I could describe and give my take on a 100,000-word book in 700 or so words—just enough to help others decide whether they wanted to buy the book. With that discovery, I started the Bob on Books blog back in 2013. Along the way, I’ve discovered the satisfaction of connecting others with a book that they find diverting or enriching. I’ve always enjoyed connecting people with good books, and this is a way to reach a wider audience.

Do you have any specific genres you tend to stick to when reading and reviewing, or do you prefer to keep things open and cast a wide net? Is there any particular topic or genre that you haven’t explored yet but are aching to jump into in the near future?

If you look at my blog, it will be apparent that I read deeply in the area of religion and theology. That connects with my work. The organization I work in is a delightful learning community, and if nothing else, I enjoy sharing the stuff I’m reading with them. Turns out that while that’s a narrow interest, there is a wide audience when you are on the web. But I also enjoy reading widely—biography, history, science and environmental writing, and a variety of genres in fiction—science fiction and fantasy, mystery and crime fiction, literary classics, espionage. My son has introduced me to graphic fiction and I hope to read more in that area. I’d like to work more poetry into my reading. You have been encouraging me in the area of horror and suspense fiction and that might be an area I explore this year.

What is it about the online book community that appeals to you? Do you think that online communities make for a better platform than the in-person meeting? Or are there an even number of pros and cons to online and in person?

I launched the Facebook version of Bob on Books a couple years ago. At first I thought of it as another channel to promote the blog. The delightful surprise for me has been to watch the interaction among people around their reading interests. People talk about books that I’ve never heard of that others love learning about. That’s allowed for a much bigger conversation. It’s been a place where very different people have been able to meet around their love of reading and delight in books, particularly around our “Question of the Day.”

The downside is that is tougher to talk online about controversial questions (or even books) around our contemporary political issues and we’ve had to limit that. Too quickly, these discussions can degenerate into cliched responses, and sometimes stray from discussions of ideas to attacking persons or each other. I shut that down, particularly because others get notifications on posts with a lot of traffic and may not want to hear it. Sadly, people forget that they don’t have to say everything they think or respond to every post! The same things can happen in person, but with friends who have established a level of trust and mutual esteem, who can separate their ideas from their identities, it’s possible to go hammer and tongs at an idea, and enjoy a beer together afterwards.

Besides writing regular book reviews you also write a regular column entitled “Growing Up In Working Class Youngstown.” Would you like to share what inspired you to write this particular column?

It came out of one of those icebreakers in a meeting. The question was “what question would tell me something about you that I might not think to ask?” My response was, “what was it like to grow up in working class Youngstown?” This was long before J.D. Vance and my wife and I (we both grew up in working class neighborhoods in Youngstown) had talked about how rich our growing up experiences were—the values, the food, the things we did, the steel mills and labor jobs, the ethnic communities, as well as the love of the arts and beauty that people who worked under harsh conditions sustained. I followed up that post with a blog post about the question and then a colleague asked how I would answer. I wrote another about Youngstown, and then a second about food (a big part of working-class life) and posted it in several Youngstown Facebook groups and it just took off from there. The Youngstown I grew up in was a great good place before it became a struggling Rust Belt city. I hope in some ways the memories of what we were, which came through a lot of hard work, might be inspiration for what the city might become.

What would you say has been the biggest drawback to our current situation as it relates to book-buying and reading (I’m talking about the COVID health scare, as well as the ongoing shutdown)? Would you say there is an upside to our current situation?

I am concerned about what will happen to the small, indie booksellers. Many people don’t feel safe with in-person shopping and are limited to online ordering. What you miss is the serendipity of browsing and spotting something you weren’t looking for. I don’t think online browsing can ever quite duplicate that. But I’ve tried to support my favorite brick and mortar booksellers during this time, and I’ve been impressed with the service I’ve received. In every instance the books have been better packaged, arrived promptly and did not cost much more than that big online seller. I grew up in a neighborhood of small businesses in walking distance of my home. Nearly all are gone now. Supporting local bookstores and other good small businesses makes the places we live good places. I want them to be there after the pandemic.

As far as reading, for many of us, it has been a good time to whittle down that TBR pile. Others are struggling and beating themselves up for not reading more. I think it has to do with the emotions of this COVID thing—anxiety, exasperation, and for some, depression. It’s real. It’s not something to be ashamed of. Finding a good counselor to talk with could be a real step of growth that brings something positive out of this hard time. Upsides? The chance to binge a new series. All kinds of creative podcasts and video with authors who can’t do book tours. Time to organize our books, and in some cases to weed some out.

One final question: What is your favorite book of all time?

Hands down, for me it is Lord of the Rings. Tolkien creates a world, a mythology, languages. I also think so many of us identify as hobbits—small fry beside the great heroes, happy to lead a quiet life, and yet longing for more. Tolkien suggests that adventure, and risk are at the heart of a life well lived, and that it is not only the quest but who is with you on the quest that makes it all worth it.

Thank you so much for talking with me today Bob. For those of you who would like to know more about our guest, his website can be found here.

Thank you, James. It has been a rich time thinking about your questions!

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