I’ve never been much of a non-fiction reader. So that’s why when Pat Conroy started publishing memoirs, first in 2003 with My Losing Season, and then in 2010 with My Reading Life, I didn’t rush out and buy them, despite my love of their author. In the past couple of years, I’ve warmed up to the genre at bit, and wouldn’t you know it, some non-fiction is actually quite good. When we were planning out PAT CONROY MONTH!! I thought it would be as good a time as any to read one of Pat Conroy’s more recent nonfiction books, and Bethany said My Reading Life was her favorite of the two. And how could I resist a book about books and reading? So I felt justified in ordering it from amazon.com a few weeks ago, along with a few other books (I didn’t want it to be lonely in the box).
The interesting thing about this book’s appearance is that it’s a small hardcover, and it appears it will never be available in paperback, as it isn’t now and it was published just about two years ago. There are sepia-toned illustrations dispersed throughout, which is kind of a nice feature—I do enjoy the occasional picture in my books. This book is essentially a collection of essays, several of which were previously published elsewhere. I’ve never read any of them before, so I didn’t mind that aspect of the book. They’re laid out in approximate chronological order, with chapters dedicated to people and events that were influential in Conroy’s reading life: his mother, a few teachers, colleagues/friends, and favorite writers who he may or may not have ever known. He actually dedicates an entire chapter to Gone with the Wind and one to War and Peace, books that have always intimidated me with their length and subject matter. I’ve watched the movie version of Gone with the Wind many times over the years, but when I tried to pick up the book and read it, I just couldn’t. That was when I was twelve or so, so I’m sure I’ll try again. I bought a copy when Borders was closing last year so I’ll get to it. Eventually.
Conroy writes with such genuine enthusiasm about people and places and things he has loved that I feel like I know and love them too. My favorite chapter was the one about his high school English teacher, Gene Norris, who became his lifelong friend. This relationship is beautiful and sad, for it lasts for the rest of Mr. Norris’s life. Conroy gave the eulogy at his funeral, and read to him on the phone while he was being treated for leukemia. I would have loved to have a relationship with a teacher like that. Maybe that doesn’t happen anymore between teachers and students. Or more likely, I was too intimidated by grownups when I was a kid to allow that sort of relationship to develop, or to seek it out. Pat Conroy obviously needed a positive male role model growing up, so he was more likely to go looking for someone. That and I’d hazard a guess that he was much more talkative to people he didn’t know well when he was a teenager than I was. It amazes me sometimes that my business now is spending time in small rooms with relative to total strangers, chatting with them about their pets. That obviously makes being a veterinarian seem more like social hour than it actually is, but when you’re a general practitioner getting to know your clients and patients comes with the territory and is important. When I was at a conference recently my friend convinced me to go to our alma mater’s alumni gathering, and one of the folks there wanted to introduce me to the recently retired dean of the school. I was horrified. I thought to myself, “I can’t talk to him!! He’s the dean!! He’s important! And he’s a grown up!” But then I just as quickly said to myself, “Wait a minute. You talk to people you’ve never met for a living, from all walks of life. Surely you can talk to another veterinarian for five minutes.” And so I did. And it was totally fine. I mean, we didn’t exchange cell phone numbers and promise to text every day, but it was a perfectly pleasant conversation. I was just so shy and intimidated by authority figures when I was a kid I would never dream of befriending one. I wonder which of my teachers I’d’ve befriended if that had been something I did when I still had official teachers.
As well as being touching, there are also moments of hilarity in My Reading Life. The first one that jumps to mind is when Conroy goes to a writer’s conference. It’s the early to mid seventies, and he wants to go to a talk given by Adrienne Rich, an up-and-coming poet who he loves. I’m sure I’ve read something she has written, but I can’t think of anything. He goes in with several female friends, and offers to run out before the talk and get coffee for everyone. When he returns to the lecture room, he hears something: “A strange sound came from the lecture hall, both ominous and unsettling, but I couldn’t lift my eyes from the shifting cups. When I got close enough, I could hear the angry hissing of the workshop participants. They sounded like an a capella choir of rat snakes. It was not just sibilance I hear; it was hatred in a very undistilled form…. Betsy Scott hurried up to me, frightened and obviously unsure as to what she should do…. ‘Run, Pat. Get the hell out of here. They’re hissing at you. At you. She kicked all the men out of her workshop—every one of them’ (p. 181).” This story goes on, and there’s a clumsy exit where in our poor Pat “sprinted toward a series of curtained portals that [he] thought were doors, but they turned out to be windows. [He] found [him]self flailing away at the window sashes and vermilion drapes and venetian blinds as the hissing grew louder… (p. 181).” He eventually makes his escape, thankfully. Pat Conroy was quite possibly one of the most enlightened white Southern males that existed at the time, and he purports that he was entirely supportive of desegregation and women’s rights. And the poor guy got kicked out of a conference. I feel bad for him. And yet, as I sit rereading this story I find myself wanting to laugh out loud. See? Pat Conroy is hilarious.
The final two chapters of this book are less stories of Conroy’s life and more him waxing philosophical about his life as a reader and as a writer. These, to me, were both the high and low points of the book. I mean, they are beautifully written and absolutely convey his deep love for books and reading and writing. I believe that he means what he says. But Pat gets a bit repetitive, and too overly sentimental. It pains me to say that, but it’s true. I’m going to stop there, and share with you guys two very short passages from the last chapter of the book that sum up, to me, the entire point of this book. I definitely recommend this book to any and all lovers of books, and also to people who aren’t readers, because it just might change your minds.
“I have built a city from the books I’ve read. There are thousands of books that go with me everywhere I go (p. 318).”
“Even today, I hunt for the fabulous books that will change me utterly. I find myself happiest in the middle of a book in which I forget that I am reading, but am instead immersed in a made-up life lived at the highest pitch. Reading is the most rewarding form of exile and the necessary discipline for a novelist who burns with the ambition to get better (p. 310).”