My Reading Life
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Bestselling author Pat Conroy acknowledges the books that have shaped him and celebrates the profound effect reading has had on his life.
Pat Conroy, the beloved American storyteller, is a voracious reader. Starting as a childhood passion that bloomed into a life-long companion, reading has been Conroy’s portal to the world, both to the farthest corners of the globe and to the deepest chambers of the human soul. His interests range widely, from Milton to Tolkien, Philip Roth to Thucydides, encompassing poetry, history, philosophy, and any mesmerizing tale of his native South. He has for years kept notebooks in which he records words and expressions, over time creating a vast reservoir of playful turns of phrase, dazzling flashes of description, and snippets of delightful sound, all just for his love of language. But for Conroy reading is not simply a pleasure to be enjoyed in off-hours or a source of inspiration for his own writing. It would hardly be an exaggeration to claim that reading has saved his life, and if not his life then surely his sanity.
In My Reading Life, Conroy revisits a life of reading through an array of wonderful and often surprising anecdotes: sharing the pleasures of the local library’s vast cache with his mother when he was a boy, recounting his decades-long relationship with the English teacher who pointed him onto the path of letters, and describing a profoundly influential period he spent in Paris, as well as reflecting on other pivotal people, places, and experiences. His story is a moving and personal one, girded by wisdom and an undeniable honesty. Anyone who not only enjoys the pleasures of reading but also believes in the power of books to shape a life will find here the greatest defense of that credo.
Not good enough. I pass. Let’s go on to the next book.” I finished selling the list in a barely controlled rage and gave a shameful performance in presenting the backlist, which I always found impressive. By the time I left that bookstore, I was ready to whack the living daylights out of that smug, hostile bookseller who had taken such grotesque pleasure in my humiliation. “You set me up, Norman,” I complained over dinner that night. He laughed and said, “I sure did. I thought you were too
and fresh assignment, I suffered through long months of trying to catch up and learning the steps required of those outsiders condemned to inhabit the airless margins of a child’s world. My family drifted in and out of that archipelago of marine bases that begins with the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and stretches down the coast to Parris Island in the South. I spent most of my childhood in North Carolina and few people in North Carolina know that salient fact. I’ve been claimed as native son
by more than a few Southern states, but not by the one I spent the most time in as a child. My mother, the loveliest of marine wives, always claimed to her seven children that we were in the middle of a wonderful, free-flowing life. Since it was the only life I’d ever lived, I had no choice but to believe her. She also provided me with the raw material for the protective shell I built for myself. As excuse or rationalization, it gave me comfort in the great solitude I was born into as a military
told me she was raising me to be a “Southern writer,” though I have never been sure that she knew what that meant. My sister Carol listened to that same voice, heard those same stories, and became a poet as a result. Part of my childhood that is most vivid was being the chief witness to the shaping of an American poet in the bedroom next to mine. My father was Chicago-born, and he brought the sensibilities of Augie March and Studs Lonigan to the cockpits of the fighter planes he flew over target
answering calls of medics low-crawling through the blasted, cratered fields with their canteens and their morphine ready. My father taught me the way of the warrior at the same time my mother was turning me into a wordsmith. My parents taught me everything I needed to know about the dangers and attractions of the extreme. Even today, the purely outrageous to me feels completely natural. My novels reflect absurdity and the exorbitance of a house in which the fully unexpected was our daily bread.