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My Reading Life

One of America’s most popular writers tells how the act of reading became his salvation.

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That observation looms as the clearest evidence of Conroy’s genius for being his worst – and most accurate – critic. Like Wolfe, whose grandiloquence has rendered him unfashionable among many modern critics, Conroy sometimes lapses into metaphorical excess.

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Of James Dickey, another favored writer, Conroy says that Dickey took language, “strung it to its bow and aimed it at the carotid artery of poetry itself.” It’s hard to know from such imagery if Dickey is being praised for making poetry or killing it, and “My Reading Life” is freckled with similar instances of rhetorical overreach, as when Conroy writes somewhat cryptically of poets that they “candle the pilot light where language hides from itself.”

With a charming sense of self-deprecation, Conroy concedes that both Norris and Berg urged him to use more economy and restraint in his writing, but near the end of “My Reading Life,” he offers a rebuttal: “Safety is a crime writers should never commit unless they are after tenure or praise.” (He adds that more timid souls should stick to safer pursuits, including book reviewing.)

Conroy’s enthusiasm for Wolfe underscores his broader passion for writers who embrace an epic sensibility. He devotes a largely affectionate chapter to Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind,” conceding its dated attitudes toward race, but praising its masterly grasp of “the art of pure storytelling.” He writes perceptively of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” flatly declaring that once a reader tackles it, “you will never be the same.”

Eschewing any pretense of high-blown literary theory, Conroy confesses that what he wants most when he sits under his reading lamp is a good story: “In every great story, I encounter a head-on collision with self and imagination.”

In “My Reading Life,” Conroy has delivered such a story – a tale that sometimes strains, as many full-throated hymns do, to grasp the divine. For Conroy, after all, reading is not only an education and an ecstasy, but a private religion.

“Reading and prayer,” he writes in one of the book’s more beautiful passages, “are both acts of worship to me.”

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”

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