About half way through this celebration of the power of reading, Pat Conroy devotes considerable space to Norman Berg, his first book representative, who took him on an extensive tour to various bookstores in an attempt to sell his early novel, The Water is Wide. Conroy writes, "It was Norman's deepest wish that I take a thousand pages of my overcaffinated prose and cut it down to a hundred pages of glittering, hard-boiled writing that would shine in its elegant completeness... My attraction to the colossal and the elephantine offended him."
My Reading Life would have made Norman very happy for Conroy has reined in his most superfluous, Thomas Wolfian tendencies and, very simply, told the story. This is a more straightforward spiritual and psychological autobiography than what is hidden in his novels, each of which draws on his life. "Reading and prayer are both acts of worship to me," he writes. As he said in a recent reading at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, NC, "With this family, I'll never go hungry!"
"Why I Write," is the most spectacular chapter. "I write to explain my own life to myself. Stories are the vessels I use to interpret the world to myself." Conroy provides one of the most cogent, concise statements of what writing means. The most powerful words, words that stretch back beyond the written word, are "Tell me a story." Those four words explain the basis of success for every writer — none more so than Conroy who has provided us with stories that always resonate. It is a secret he learned from Gene Norris, the high school English teacher who, long after his death, still has a profound influence on Conroy.
This theme of telling a story is central to My Reading Life. "I reach for a story to save my life." Conroy is a superb storyteller as he so aptly demonstrated at Quail Ridge. He regaled a standing room only crowd with what amounted to a 45-minute story laced with various subplots and side excursions. "I always dreamed of being a writer," he said. Everything was fodder for him. He introduced Kitty Mahoney, a marine wife who was another parent to him. She is immortalized as Leo King's secretary in South of Broad. He mentioned Sallie Ann Robinson whom we met as Rachel in The Water is Wide. One of those Gullah children who did not even know the Atlantic Ocean was at their feet, she is now a successful author of two cookbooks and does presentations on the Gullah culture, including a recent one at the Smithsonian. Her first trip to Washington was with Conroy when he took his class there from Daufuskie Island. The stories spun out of Conroy and illustrated the value of reading and the deep well of resources from which he continues to draw inspiration. He indicated that he is currently working on a new book, The Death of Santini. Having heard a couple of the stories that will appear, I eagerly anticipate its completion.
I picked up My Reading Life one evening and opened it by happenstance to Conroy's account of meeting Archibald Rutledge, the Poet Laureate of South Carolina. He writes of the courtly manner Rutledge exhibited and his treatment of a shy 16-year old boy as if he knew something about writing. I had met Colonel Rutledge when I was 11 and had sat on his front porch talking about hunting, so Conroy's account sparked such a flood of memory that I read the entire book straight through.
Conroy writes, "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." Read this book and it will surely take up contented residence in your heart, and you will just as surely take it off the shelf and re-read it more than once.
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