My Reading Life is Pat Conroy’s love song to the books that made him the writer he is today. It is also a love song to the people who introduced him to these books—his mother, his high school English teacher, the irascible owner of his favorite book shop, along with countless friends with whom he has shared books and talked about books.
The vignettes are sometimes poignant, sometimes funny. One of my favorites is the story of how he was ousted from an Adrienne Rich poetry reading at his first ever writers’ conference. He had gone to get coffee for his group of friends, and when he returned, carefully balancing the coffee cups, he didn’t notice he was the only male in the audience until they started hissing at him.
He tells other stories about the experiences that made him a writer—for example, he feels a desperate need to portray the family abuse he was forced to hush up as a child—alternating with chapters on the books that formed him and are still among his favorites today, such as War and Peace, Gone with the Wind, and Look Homeward, Angel.
Never having read Conroy before, I was amazed at his passionate prose. He has an endearing way of launching into a high-flown sentence, then adding a self-deprecating little shrug at the end. For example, he writes poignantly about his lonely boyhood as the child of a military family and how books provided his only solace: “Before I’d ever asked a girl out, I had fallen in love with Anna Karenina, taken Isabel Archer to high tea at the Grand Hotel in Rome, delivered passionate speeches to Juliet beneath her balcony, abandoned Dido in Carthage, made love to Lara in Zhivago’s Russia, walked beside Lady Brett Ashley in Paris, danced with Madame Bovary—I could form a sweet-smelling corps de ballet composed of the women I have loved in books.” I must say he made me want to read the books he praised. Several of his favorites are favorites of mine as well, and I found myself saying, “Yes, yes!” as he praised so eloquently books that have been formative in my own life, such as James Dickey’s Deliverance, which Conroy called “a palace of light for a white-water river of words.”
To anyone who loves books, I say, “Read this one.” Even if his tastes are different from yours, Conroy’s passion for the written word will take you by storm and leave you remembering why you love to read.