My Reading Life

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

My Reading Life By Pat Conroy Doubleday 192 pp., $25

As library and grade school billboards often earnestly proclaim, reading can be educational, even fun.

But reading can also change your life, and maybe even save it.

That’s the message of My Reading Life, Pat Conroy’s account of how literature rescued him from a troubled youth, sustained him through periods of trial, and helped make him not only an avid reader, but a celebrated writer.

Conroy has written numerous books, but he’s perhaps best known as the author of “The Great Santini,” a searingly autobiographical novel about a son’s coming of age at the hands of an abusive father.

Perhaps not surprisingly given Conroy’s wounded childhood, his Marine pilot father appears in the very first paragraph of “My Reading Life” as Conroy recalls his migratory and often turbulent childhood as a military brat.

Displaced and often desolate, Conroy sought solace in the woods around Marine bases, bringing home “a series of captured animals, from snapping turtles to copperheads.” Conroy’s mother brought him books to identify his quarry, and he was hooked.

“Whatever prize I brought out of the woods, my mother could match with a book from the library,” Conroy tells readers. “She read so many books that she was famous among the librarians in every town she entered. Since she did not attend college, she looked to librarians as her magic carpet into a serious intellectual life.”

Although reading, like writing, is often regarded as a solitary act, “My Reading Life” reminds readers that books can also be a strong, bright hearth where communities form. Conroy’s memoir is a frequently winning celebration of that fellowship, with tributes not only to his mother, but to others who stoked his passion for language.

They include Gene Norris, a high school English teacher who noticed the troubled Conroy’s early promise and became a surrogate father; Norman Berg, a book executive who prodded Conroy to read and write more deeply; and Cliff Graubart, an Atlanta bookseller whose shop became Conroy’s informal university.
Conroy credits Norris with sparking his lifelong passion for Thomas Wolfe, Conroy’s literary hero and the subject of an entire chapter of homage.

“Most flaws I have as a man and a writer I can trace directly to the early influence of Thomas Wolfe,” Conroy writes, adding at another point that quite possibly, Wolfe’s style “can be the worst influence on a young writer’s life and work.”

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.

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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