Monday, November 15, 2010

Pat Conroy's My Reading Life

Since I read Prince of Tides many years ago, I have made a point to read all of Pat Conroy's books--the novels and the memoirs. As a teacher, I loved The Water Is Wide," but I found Lords of Discipline and The Great Santini just as powerful and, at times, shocking.

I have noticed that ever Conroy novel has one good sports chapter, the story of a big game that can stand alone as a short story.

I know he's criticized for his big, blustery style, something of which he is well aware. When he's at the top of his game, his writing is lyrical. I can smell Savannah when he takes his readers there. He can also be completely outrageous--and I enjoy that too. I don't think I'll ever forget reading the scene in Prince of Tides when the statue of the Christ child is used to club to death the evildoers breaking into the house. I was on a plane as I read, and I so drastically want to tell someone about what I had just read. (Did I mention the man-eating tiger in the same book?)

Conroy has just released a new memoir that's right up my alley, which he called My Reading Life. His chapter topics range from his mother's early influence to that of Gene Norris, his beloved English teacher, as well as a mean librarian, an independent bookstore owner in Atlanta, and a number of his favorite books and authors--Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, Tolstoy's War and Peace, James Dickey, and Thomas Wolfe.

The book is evidence of Conroy's self-awareness. He not only knows his influences but recognizes the marks they leave on him. His revelation of his own reading habits are infectious. He decided at sixteen to read at least two hundred pages a day, working his way through the list of great literature, sometimes more than once, and discovering new writers along the way. He had a lot to say about poetry and poets as his muses.

He also pays tribute to one of the strongest human urges, naming "Tell me a story" as "the most powerful words in the English language"(303). I heard him speak at a local college a few years ago, and afterwards I ran into a friend who asked, "Do you really think all those stories he tells are true?" I had to remind myself that she was not Southern. Of course they're true. Down here we all have similar stories of our own.

One particular line in the book struck a chord: "Few things linger longer or become more indwelling than that feeling of both completion and emptiness when a great book ends" (311). Exactly.

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