My Reading Life
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday
a copy of this book was provided by the publisher for review
Pat Conroy, "Why I Write" from My Reading LifeEven today I hunt for the fabulous books that will change me utterly. I find myself happiest in the middle of a book in which I forget that I am reading, but am instead immersed in a made-up life lived at the highest pitch. Reading is the most rewarding form of exile and the necessary discipline for a novelist who burns with ambition to get better.
This is the book you probably should have gotten your mother this Christmas. Or maybe you already did; if so, she's going to love it, and so are many of the bookish people in your life, including you. My Reading Life is a memoir through books, and for readers of Conroy's novels and other works, the territory will be familiar. Conroy's published works have always been heavily informed by his experiences growing up with a book-besotted Southern mother, and an abusive fighter-pilot father. Each chapter in My Reading Life corresponds to a formative period in Conroy's personal life and his reading life.
One of the best essays in the collection is "The Teacher," about Conroy's English teacher, Gene Norris of Beaufort High School. Gene Norris is "the English teacher who found a profoundly shy and battered young man and changed with course of his life with the extravagant passion he brought to his classroom." Of course, the Beaufort High School classroom of 1961 was a segregated classroom, and Conroy paints a picture of a teacher who defied the racism of the era by taking Conroy to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Penn Center, or who defied the school district by defending J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. The friendship Conroy had with Norris was lifelong, and his appreciation of his teacher and friend is one of the most moving sections of the book.
What comes through in My Reading Life is Pat Conroy's passion for books, for writing, and for the English language itself. The writer pokes fun at himself and his hero-worship of Thomas Wolfe; he acknowledges his own verbosity (even as he defends it), and he pokes a big pen in the inflated opinions of critics and academics, for whom he cares little.
My Reading Life is a book to be savored and read over time. There is a long hymn to Gone With the Wind in which Conroy dissects the troubling racial attitudes behind the novel and its success, even as he defends the book for its characters, its writing, and its ineffable sense of story. There is a "love letter" to Thomas Wolfe, to Leo Tolstoy and War and Peace, and to the genius of James Dickey. There are also love letters to non-literary characters, such as the cantankerous and contrary high school librarian Eileen Hunter, and the transplanted New Yorker of The Old New York Bookshop in Atlanta.
Fans of Pat Conroy's fiction will surely fall in love with My Reading Life for all the qualities that draw readers to his fiction: his blend of the colloquial and the lofty (often in the same sentence), his long, adjective-laden sentences, practically dripping with magnolia blossoms, his personal demons, which lend an almost mythic sense of drama to his writing. Take for instance this sentence: "It is not my fault I was raised by Zeus and Hera, but my books mirror the odd, hothouse environment of my astonished childhood."
Readers not already familiar with Conroy's fiction (there can't be many) will also enjoy this book, which falls into the category of "bibliophile's delight." People who love books, or who are fascinated by the dynamic between reading, writing, and life, will find My Reading Life fascinating. It also doesn't hurt that the book is beautifully designed (surely with gift-giving in mind), with beautiful drawings by Wendell Minor throughout. Some of the chapters in My Reading Life are more about Conroy's life than his life as a reader and writer; when he goes deep into his writing and reading soul, his voice is a captivating one, that of a true storyteller and artist.