Wednesday, November 24, 2010

My Reading Life

Pat Conroy fans, this one is for you.  Longtime readers of Conroy’s fiction have often wondered why so many years pass between new books, how much truth is really contained in his novels, how his family reacts about seeing themselves in his novels, and whether Conroy’s abuse at the hands of his father has had a long term impact on his head.  In My Reading Life, Conroy answers all of those questions – and many more.

According to Conroy, reading saved his life.  Books were his escape from the harsh realities of growing up in a family headed by the kind of brute his father was.  They kept him sane by showing him what was possible.  The first reader in his life was his mother, a woman who very literally educated herself with books from the public library topped off by her son’s schoolbooks.  She did the reading – and the study assignments – because she wanted to master what she had been forced to miss as a young woman

 The first time Mrs. Conroy read Gone to the Wind to Pat, he was only five years old.  She read it to him so many times (yearly) that it became an intimate part of their mother-son relationship and Conroy credits the experience with making him the novelist he is today. 

“I became a novelist because of Gone with the Wind, 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, and it was the one fire of her bruised, fragmented youth that never went out.”

Conroy’s mother was his first influence, but she would not be the only mentor in his life.  Pat, knowing that he did not want to become a man that even remotely resembled the man his father was, searched for an alternative role model.  To his great relief, he finally found that man in a Beaufort High School classroom.  English teacher Gene Norris would become such a positive force in Pat Conroy’s life that their relationship would last for decades.
 “Though Gene couldn’t have survived a fistfight with any of the marines I had met, I knew I was in the presence of the exceptional and scrupulous man I’d been searching for my whole life.  The certainty of his gentleness was like a clear shot of sunshine to me.  I had met a great man, at last.”
Gene Norris would encourage and challenge Pat Conroy in ways that would make him a better writer – and, more importantly, a better man – than he might have been if the two had never crossed paths.

My Reading Life is filled with Pat Conroy’s memories.  It is a clearly marked roadmap of the life path taken by one of America’s most beloved writers.  It is both personal and frank in its approach, and it will certainly please those readers already familiar with Conroy’s novels and nonfiction work.  And readers for whom My Reading Life is their first exposure to Pat Conroy, will almost certainly want to see what they have been missing for the past few decades.

Personally I will remember My Reading Life best because of all the wonderful, bookish quotes it encompasses.  This is one of my favorites:  

“Books are living things and their task lies in their vows of silence.  You touch them as they    quiver with a divine pleasure.  You read them and they fall asleep to happy dreams for the next ten years.  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.”

Rated at: 5.
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