The death of Pat Conroy at age 70 has ended the career of one of America’s best-known writers.
But in addition to his work as the man behind such bestselling novels as “The Great Santini” and “The Prince of Tides,” Conroy was also one of the nation’s – and perhaps the world’s – most enthusiastic lovers of books.
Conroy celebrated his bibliophilia in his 2010 memoir, “My Reading Life,” which recalled how his connection with the written word got him through a troubled youth as the peripatetic son of an abusive military officer – the inspiration for the title character of “The Great Santini.” An often lonely military brat, Conroy found solace at the public library, where he was inspired to build a private library of his own.
“My Reading Life” is a running love letter to traditional books – a celebration of how they feel and smell, and the stories and language they hold inside.
Here, in tribute of Conroy and his abiding affection for the treasures of his bookshelf, are five passages from “My Reading Life”:
1) “I take it as an article of faith that the novels I’ve loved will live inside me forever. Let me call on the spirit of Anna Karenina as she steps out onto the train tracks of Moscow in the last minute of her glorious and implacable life. 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. If I close my eyes I can conjure up a whole country of the dead who will live for all time because a writer turned them into flesh and blood.”
2) “To my mother, a library was a palace of desire masquerading in a wilderness of books. In the downtown library of Orlando, Florida, Mom pointed out a solid embankment of books. In serious battalions the volumes stood in strict formation, straight-backed and squared away. They looked like unsmiling volunteers shined and ready for dress parade.”
3) “The poets of the world occupy a place of high honor in my city of books. Those wizards of language draw me into the vast acreage of their talent. A book of poetry is made up of threads that coil around the soft bodies of sound. Stealing the linens of the spoken word, poets are not shy about displaying the rose windows and altar cloths of their prodigious art.”
4) “Reading great books gave me unlimited access to people I never would have met, cities I couldn’t visit, mountain ranges I would never lay eyes on, or rivers I would never swim. Through books I fought bravely in wars of both attrition and conquest.”
5) “Some of us read to ratify our despair about the world; others choose to read because it offers one of the only safety nets where love and hope can find comfort. The subject of all writers is the terrible brightness that wards off the ineffable approach of death.... I create a city of fiction because I want to leave an entire, considered world behind me.... When I open a window in a town that I've made up in my head, I want to make a world that readers can approach in wonder. "
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of "A Summer of Birds: John Audubon at Oakley House."