For a writer who has a reputation for writing lengthy blockbusters, a reputation he not only admits is accurate, but one he takes pride in, Pat Conroy’s little collection of essays on his love of books and the people who influenced and fostered that love, My Reading Life, is something of a departure. This is not a voluminous tome, but it is a serious reflection on how a lonely young boy with little opportunity to make friends because his military family was constantly moving from base to base, a boy tormented by an abusive father, was able to find both an escape and a calling in books. It is a story about how that love of books can become a lifelong obsession.
While he does spend time talking about the books and writing that captured his imagination both as a boy and later as an adult, it is the portraits of the people — the book lovers and odd characters that he met along the way — that make for the most interesting reading. Sure, he found a copy of Les Miserables in the high school library to occupy his lonely lunch hours, but it is Miss Hunter, the Beaufort high librarian who doesn’t cotton to students reading in her library and likes a little Jack Daniels for her nagging head cold, who is the memorable part of his essay. It is Mr. Norris, the English teacher who takes an interest in the bookish boy and teaches him lessons about life and literature and introduces him to the work of Thomas Wolfe, who serves as the model of the kind of humane character that a life devoted to literature can foster. It is Cliff Graubart, the New York transplant owner of an Atlanta bookstore, Norman Berg, the book rep who refused to tolerate fools, Jonathan Carroll, a little known American novelist who is careful to watch an elderly woman walk a tortoise every evening: these and a variety of others are the characters that fill the book with life.
This is not to say that there is no discussion of books. There is, but it is usually more in the nature of appreciation than it is critical analysis. There is an essay on Tolstoy which focuses on War and Peace. A book he points to as perhaps the greatest of all novels. There is a love letter to Thomas Wolfe whose passion for language despite his acknowledged flaws and excesses is probably the central influence on Conroy’s own work. James Dickey’s poetry is always on his desk even now, and Deliverance is a masterpiece that got him out canoeing down the Chattooga. These are writers who are treated in individual essays, but the book is filled with references to others — Henry James and Henry Adams, Dickens and Neruda, Gibbon and Hemingway, and these are just a few.
Probably, it is his mother who was the biggest influence on his reading. It was her passion for books that he emulated earliest. Books, for her, served as a substitute for the education she missed in her life. Oddly, the book he talks about as his first legacy from her is Margaret Mitchell’s popular historical classic, Gone with the Wind, a book, more than likely because of its sentimental associations, he seems to rate a good deal higher than most. “Gone with the Wind has outlived a legion of critics and will bury another whole set of them after this century closes.” He is a southerner, after all.
Additionally, there is a good deal of discussion of his own writing. He talks about his father’s reaction to the way he is portrayed in The Great Santini. He describes the way the portrait of Eugene Gant’s father in Look Homeward, Angel enabled him to deal with his own demons. He discusses the failures of his early attempts at poetry and the short story, and he does have quite a story to tell of his one early poem he wrote while at The Citadel that was a success.
This may be a little book, but it is not an empty book. Readers who care about books will find in Conroy a kindred spirit. They may well find an honest voice that speaks their own feelings with a style and grace they can only wish they had themselves.