Thu February 17, 2011
My Reading Life
Pat Conroy might be the most dedicated reader of any novelist, living or dead. This volume is a kind of memoir, structured around the most important books and book-people in Conroy's life. It altogether one of the most candid, funny, beautiful and heart-breaking books I have read in a very long time.
By Don Noble
Audio ?2011 Alabama Public Radio
Not all fiction writers are avid readers of fiction. Perhaps most famously, Erskine Caldwell, who wrote some 37 books in his lifetime, believed that the writer had a choice: he could either write books are read books, not both.
Ernest Hemingway, on the other hand, was a reader, both after his daily writing stints and especially between books.
Pat Conroy might be the most dedicated reader of any novelist, living or dead. Conroy, in his new, nonfiction book "My Reading Life," says, "I have tried to read two hundred pages every day of my life since I was a freshman in high school, because I knew that I would come to the writing of books without the weight of culture and learning that a well-established, confidently placed family could offer its children."
This volume is a kind of memoir, structured around the most important books and book-people in Conroy's life. It altogether one of the most candid, funny, beautiful and heart-breaking books I have read in a very long time.
Reading was especially important to Conroy as a child because, as all the world knows, his father, Col. Donald Conroy, was an abusive husband and father and books were indeed, for Pat and his mother, Peg, a means of escape. and a much-needed encounter with beauty. Peg read aloud to her son, went with him to the library, and later, often read what he read.
Conroy closes the first chapter with this encomium to his mother: "My mother hungered for art?She lit signal fires in the hills for her son to feel and follow. I tremble with gratitude as I honor her name."
Conroy who, as he puts it , grew up with "enough machismo in my life to start a Spanish restaurant," was utterly stunned when his English teacher at the Citadel, Col. James Harrison, the grandson of a Confederate general, wept in class as he read aloud, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed" Whitman's poem about the death of Abraham Lincoln.
There are several chapters in "My Reading Life" devoted to individual men and women who mentored young Conroy, guided him deeper and deeper into the world of great literature, where he could find pleasure and which may have helped save his life. He writes: "Let me beckon Madame Bovary to issue me a cursory note of warning whenever I get suicidal or despairing as I live out a life too sad by half."
In this group is a cantankerous librarian and high school teacher, Gene Norris, who became a true father-figure, introduced Conroy to many writers and books, including "The Catcher in the Rye," and should have received the MacArthur Genius Prize. Conroy says of Norris: "If there is more important work than teaching, I hope to learn about it before I die."
There is a chapter recalling the Old New York Book Shop in Atlanta, scene of so many signings and launchings, and Cliff Graubart, the owner, who introduced Conroy to the joys of book collecting.
Conroy has a truly hysterical chapter on his four months in Paris writing "The Lords of Discipline," a chapter that rivals David Sedaris's "Me Talk Pretty One Day," in every way.
In another chapter Conroy remembers his time in James Dickey's classes and his near-worship of Dickey, the consummate poet, whose work Conroy feels will not survive, as academia is eaten up with political correctness.
Conroy feels that "War and Peace" is the best novel ever written and that it should be read by all, especially political leaders contemplating sending troops to invade enemy soil.
And there is a heartfelt hymn of praise to the writing of Thomas Wolfe and "Look Homeward, Angel." Conroy is aware of the florid excesses of Wolfe's style, but could not care less." He feels forever indebted to Wolfe, mainly for his "greatness of spirit." "Look Homeward Angel" was a "pivotal event" in Conroy's life and a major influence on his style. "It is a well-known fact that I will carefully select four silvery, difficult-to-digest adjectives when one lean , Anglo-Saxon adjective will suffice." But Wolfe, like Conroy, writes "like a man on fire who does not have a clue how not to be on fire?I find it incomparably beautiful."
If Wolfe shaped Conroy as a writer, it was "Gone with the Wind" that made him a Southern writer, and that novel has never received a more impassioned defense than Conroy's. His mother reread it constantly herself and read it aloud to young Pat.
Both Wolfe and Mitchell have drawn living, breathing characters and vividly evoked their respective places, Asheville and Atlanta, and both employ lush language, but finally, in Margaret Mitchell as in Thomas Wolfe, and J.R.R. Tolkien, it is the "ancient art" of "pure storytelling" that " brings entertainment and pleasure" that really matters.
Other, more avant-garde writers may heap scorn, but Conroy insists, "The writers who scoff at the idea of primacy of stories either are idiots or cannot write them."
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show "Bookmark" and the editor of "A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama."