Reading is the most rewarding form of exile, Pat Conroy writes in his new book My Reading Life. For a man who's spent some 60 years making sense of his childhood, his father's domineering hand, and the suicide of his brother Tom, one can understand why the Southern novelist built himself a fortress from the words of greats like James Dickey, Thomas Wolfe, Margaret Mitchell, and J.R.R. Tolkien.
My Reading Life is a nonfiction series of 15 vignettes. Like all of Conroy's books, this one too comes across as a love letter. Rather than a message to his abusive father or estranged daughter, though, My Reading Life is a passionate epistle to possibly the one love in his life that's never let him down, his most intoxicating mistress: the written word.
Each chapter recounts a different book, author, or individual who encouraged Conroy's delight in good literature. Many pages are dedicated to the author's mother, Peg. She never attended college, and it was her lifelong shame. To address this, she read. By reading and educating herself via the libraries of the Southeast, Conroy says, "Mom changed her life."
Conroy writes that his mother modeled herself on Scarlett O'Hara. "I became a Southern novelist because of Gone with the Wind," writes Conroy. "Or more precisely, my mother raised me up to be a 'Southern' novelist, with a strong emphasis on the word 'Southern,' because Gone with the Wind set my mother's imagination ablaze when she was a young girl in Atlanta."
Conroy dedicates an entire chapter to Margaret Mitchell's epic and his mother's passion for the story, which he describes as a book that, to this day, he cannot easily put down, and it "still glows and quivers with life."
It's descriptions like this, his trademark flowery prose, that have been deemed "wet and woozy" by critics, and in My Reading Life, Conroy is quick to take himself to task for his style flaws. Specifically in the chapter "A Love Letter to Thomas Wolfe," Conroy explains how the famed author introduced him to full-bodied vernacular. He loved Wolfe's writing the minute he read Look Homeward, Angel, and he doesn't apologize for it. In fact, Conroy somehow uses his own indulgent language, rich with the overuse of too many adjectives, to convince the reader that his verbose writing, incidentally, is also kind of magnificent.
"I always ask myself when I read a review, 'Do you want to write like that critic or do you want to write like yourself?' My answer is always the same: I want to write like myself," Conroy says.
In the clipped tongue of today's search-engine-optimized language, that's something to be appreciated.
Conroy arranges My Reading Life in a way that not only pays homage to the specific stories and styles that shaped his writing, but the individuals that came along with them. People like Cliff Graubart, owner of Atlanta's the Old New York Book Shop; or Eileen Hunter, the persnickety librarian at Beaufort High School; or Gene Norris, his beloved English teacher. All remarkable folks, at least in Conroy's telling. He writes about his friends with the kind of care a comic book collector would give to an original Zap Comix; sure, he'll point out flaws, but ultimately he focuses the majority of his attention on an individual's most remarkable qualities, describing them in a reverential tone.
Pat Conroy isn't just a Southern writer; he's a Southern gentleman, and his charm can be disarming. He's possibly the friendliest individual I've ever interviewed, but he's quick to tell you that it's all acquired charm.
"Reading changed my entire life," Conroy says with no hint of exaggeration. "I think I learned how to be and how to act by reading great books about great men and women. I learned how not to be my father. I learned how to be a gentleman."
For Conroy, his reading education continues. "I try to read 200 pages a day, and you just caught me in the middle of reading," he said when I spoke with him last week. He was in the middle of Paul Elie's book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage. Conroy explains that he came across the book by way of his editor Jonathan Galassi. "I usually read a book that captures the nation's imagination."
The tales he loves tend to be the classics. "I've tried to read the greatest books ever written. The ones I haven't read are always on my list." His book not only shares his own passion, but encourages the reader to explore the great novels — especially students.
And as it turns out, that's half the point of My Reading Life. "I'm hoping this book can be used in high schools by English teachers," he says, joking that it might be the first of his books that could avoid school censorship.
Conroy is already deep into the production of his next book, The Death of Santini, a nonfiction tribute to his father. "It's turning into an autobiography," Conroy says, who reconciled with his dad prior to his passing. "He died a beloved man."
Perhaps that's the message of My Reading Life: the quest for understanding and a reconciliation with life's mysteries through the conduit of a good book. Or as Conroy would say, "Books are living things, and their task lies in their vows of silence. If you do them the favor of understanding them, of taking in their portions of grief and wisdom, then they settle down in contented residence in your heart."