My Reading Life

( 54 )

Overview

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 ...

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My Reading Life

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Overview

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.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

"When people ask me for my biography, I tell them the books I have read." The quotation is from Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, but it might serve equally well as the rubric for Pat Conroy's new memoir. My Life in Books recapitulates a long, fruitful career of reading; from the hit-and-miss forays of a neophyte to his encounters with masterpieces that have shaped his life. And chances are that while you are immersing yourself in Conroy's memories, you will be creating your own autobiography of reading. Bound to be an apt gift for any bibliophile.

Publishers Weekly
The strengths and weakness of Conroy's novels--both his beguiling narrative voice and his often overly emotional language--are present in this slim paean to the books and book people that have shaped his life. Conroy attributes his love of literature to his mother, who nurtured his passion for reading and at the same time educated herself by studying his school books. "I tremble with gratitude as I honor her name," he writes. Conroy's favorite novel was Gone with the Wind, which his mother read to him when he was five years old, and it made a novelist of him, he asserts. Conroy pays tribute to the men who were substitute father figures and mentors, among them a legendary book rep who chastised him for his "overcaffeinated prose." Breakneck contrasts exist throughout: on the one hand, Conroy sketches concisely the venom of Southern white bigotry; on the other hand, he allows humor to bubble up through dialogue, and riffs the English language. While some readers will not progress beyond the fustian prose, Conroy's legion of fans will doubtlessly bond with the author as he earnestly explores the role of books in providing him with inspiration and solace. (Nov. 2)
Library Journal
Novelist Conroy (The Prince of Tides) is first and foremost a storyteller, but the foundation of his storytelling ability is his love of reading. Here, he tells the story of how reading shaped his life and made him who he is today. His memoir is partially a love letter to those who introduced him to life-changing works. While books about the power of reading abound, Conroy's stands apart because he simply tells a good story, one of a Southern boy whose mind was molded by mentors and great authors, and whose life was transformed accordingly. Economical prose is, Conroy admits, not prevalent in his work. His writing is lush, hyperbolic, and supremely Southern; to anyone not acquainted with the style, it can seem bombastic, but when he overreaches with language, he does it purposefully. VERDICT Readers who enjoy Conroy's work, Southern literature, contemporary memoirs, or books about reading will like this personable and accessible book, which will surely get a boost from good word of mouth and would make a good book club pick.—Audrey Snowden, Cleveland P.L.
Kirkus Reviews

The bestselling author offers scattered remembrances and ruminations about favorite books, writers and inspirations.

Conroy (South of Broad, 2009, etc.) begins with what seems like a plan—a more or less chronological journey forward from his early reading days. He follows it for a few chapters before abandoning it, embarking on a narrative about influential individual writers (James Dickey, Thomas Wolfe), favorite books (Gone with the Wind;Look Homeward, Angel;War and Peace), formative experiences (traveling around with a caustic book rep, living in Paris) and a few free-standing meditations (the penultimate chapter, "Why I Write"). Along the way, he both canonizes and crucifies. Among his saints are his mother, who loved reading and showed her son the lovely life of a bookworm; his high-school English teacher, Gene Norris, who challenged Conroy, excited him about an intellectual life, took him to visit Wolfe's home and remained a lifelong friend; and an eccentric, nonreading Atlanta bookseller. Among those the author lashes are some notables at a long-ago writers' conference: William H. Gass, who was vicious in a workshop and had "a grand intellect, but a shoddy heart"; Alice Walker, who signed a book but wouldn't speak to him; and Adrienne Rich, who repelled all men, Conroy included, from a public reading. No Conroy book would be complete without a few dark visits from his abusive Marine Corps father, "The Great Santini," who arrives in several chapters, fists flying most brutally. All Conroy's gifts, excesses, successes, failures and folderol both adorn and diminish his text. He is capable of something pure and perfect ("I read for fire"), something hackneyed ("Once you have readWar and Peace, you will never be the same") and something truly affecting (passages on the death of his beloved high-school English teacher), and the dialogue veers from brisk and natural to patently crafted and self-serving.

From time's bookshelf, Conroy selects some arresting volumes and some dusty duds better left alone.

From the Publisher
"Timely as well as timeless ... Elegant, evocative, and elegaic."
Boston Globe

"The 15 essays in My Reading Life should delight curious readers ... [Conroy] is fun to read and debate."
USA Today

"Pat Conroy doesn't just love books, he devours them. He doesn't just visit libraries and bookstores, he inhabits them. He doesn't enjoy language, he revels in it ... [My Reading Life] is a rich, unabashedly self-critical and moving tribute to a writer's passion ...  Like Stephen King did in his remarkable On Writing, Conroy reminds us of his considerable talents for telling a story and arranging words."
Associated Press

"In this marvelous blueprint for how to engage with all things literary, the goal is not only to get wet, but to fall deeply and madly in over our heads. With its heady mix of memoir, advice and out-and-out lust for the written word, My Reading Life asks how we could possibly settle for anything less."
Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"[Conroy's] fans will savor these 15 essays on the books and people that helped shape his long writing career ... They lend themselves to being taken up separately, at leisure, and savored like a rich dessert."
The Charlotte Observer

"My Reading Life extols the glories of books [and] offers heartfelt thanks to those who encouraged a passion that led [Conroy] to writing."
The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC)

"In My Reading Life, we not only learn about many of Conroy's pivotal reading experiences, we see how he came together as a writer, and are entertained by a host of stories about unlikely heroes."
Asheville Citizen-Times

"Conroy's legion of fans will doubtlessly bond with the author as he earnestly explores the role of books in providing him with inspiration and solace."
Publishers Weekly

"What a delightful little book ... with a punch far sturdier than its compact size might suggest ... Try to resist rereading it!"
Booklist
 
PRAISE FOR PAT CONROY:

"Pat Conroy's writing contains a virtue now rare in most contemporary fiction: passion."
Denver Post

"Reading Pat Conroy is like watching Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel."
Houston Chronicle

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385533577
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/2/2010
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 116,523
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.10 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

PAT CONROY is the bestselling author of nine previous books: The Boo, The Water Is Wide, The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline, The Prince of Tides, Beach Music, My Losing Season, The Pat Conroy Cookbook, and South of Broad. Several of his books have been made into successful films. He lives in Fripp Island, South Carolina.

From the Hardcover edition.

Biography

Pat Conroy was born on October 26, 1945, in Atlanta, Georgia, to a young career military officer from Chicago and a Southern beauty from Alabama, whom Pat often credits for his love of language. He was the first of seven children.

His father was a violent and abusive man, a man whose biggest mistake, Conroy once said, was allowing a novelist to grow up in his home, a novelist "who remembered every single violent act... my father's violence is the central fact of my art and my life." Since the family had to move many times to different military bases around the South, Pat changed schools frequently, finally attending the Citadel Military Academy in Charleston, South Carolina, upon his father's insistence. While still a student, he wrote and then published his first book, The Boo, a tribute to a beloved teacher.

After graduation, Conroy taught English in Beaufort, where he met and married a young woman with two children, a widow of the Vietnam War. He then accepted a job teaching underprivileged children in a one-room schoolhouse on Daufuskie Island, a remote island off the South Carolina shore. After a year, Pat was fired for his unconventional teaching practices -- such as his unwillingness to allow corporal punishment of his students -- and for his general lack of respect for the school's administration. Conroy evened the score when he exposed the racism and appalling conditions his students endured with the publication of The Water is Wide in 1972. The book won Conroy a humanitarian award from the National Education Association and was made into the feature film Conrack, starring Jon Voight.

Following the birth of a daughter, the Conroys moved to Atlanta, where Pat wrote his novel, The Great Santini, published in 1976. This autobiographical work, later made into a powerful film starring Robert Duvall, explored the conflicts of his childhood, particularly his confusion over his love and loyalty to an abusive and often dangerous father.

The publication of a book that so painfully exposed his family's secret brought Conroy to a period of tremendous personal desolation. This crisis resulted not only in his divorce but the divorce of his parents; his mother presented a copy of The Great Santini to the judge as "evidence" in divorce proceedings against his father.

The Citadel became the subject of his next novel, The Lords of Discipline, published in 1980. The novel exposed the school's harsh military discipline, racism and sexism. This book, too, was made into a feature film.

Pat remarried and moved from Atlanta to Rome where he began The Prince of Tides which, when published in 1986, became his most successful book. Reviewers immediately acknowledged Conroy as a master storyteller and a poetic and gifted prose stylist. This novel has become one of the most beloved novels of modern time—with over five million copies in print, it has earned Conroy an international reputation. The Prince of Tides was made into a highly successful feature film directed by Barbra Streisand, who also starred in the film opposite Nick Nolte, whose brilliant performance won him an Oscar nomination.

Beach Music (1995), Conroy's sixth book, was the story of Jack McCall, an American who moves to Rome to escape the trauma and painful memory of his young wife's suicidal leap off a bridge in South Carolina. The story took place in South Carolina and Rome, and also reached back in time to the Holocaust and the Vietnam War. This book, too, was a tremendous international bestseller.

While on tour for Beach Music, members of Conroy's Citadel basketball team began appearing, one by one, at his book signings around the country. When his then-wife served him divorce papers while he was still on the road, Conroy realized that his team members had come back into his life just when he needed them most. And so he began reconstructing his senior year, his last year as an athlete, and the 21 basketball games that changed his life. The result of these recollections, along with flashbacks of his childhood and insights into his early aspirations as a writer, is My Losing Season, Conroy's seventh book and his first work of nonfiction since The Water is Wide.

He currently lives in Fripp Island, South Carolina with his wife, the novelist Cassandra King.

Author biography courtesy of Pat Conroy's official web site.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Donald Patrick Conroy (full name)
    2. Hometown:
      San Francisco and South Carolina
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 26, 1945
    2. Place of Birth:
      Atlanta, Georgia
    1. Education:
      B.A.,The Citadel, 1967

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Lily

Between the ages of six and nine, I was a native son of the marine bases of Cherry Point and Camp Lejeune in the eastern coastal regions of North Carolina. My father flew in squadrons of slant-winged Corsairs, which I still think of as the most beautiful warplanes that ever took to the sky. For a year Dad flew with the great Boston hitter and left fielder Ted Williams, and family lore has it that my mother and Mrs. Williams used to bathe my sister and me along with Ted Williams's daughter. That still remains the most distinguished moment of my commonplace career as an athlete. I followed Ted Williams's pursuit of greatness, reveling in my father's insider knowledge that "Ted [has] the best reflexes of any marine pilot who ever flew Corsairs." I read every book about baseball in the library of each base and town we entered, hoping for any information about "the Kid" or "the Splendid Splinter." When the movie of The Great Santini came out starring Robert Duvall, Ted Williams told a sportswriter that he'd once flown with Santini. My whole writing career was affirmed with that single, transcendent moment.

The forests around Cherry Point and Camp Lejeune were vast to the imagination of a boy. Once I climbed an oak tree as high as I could go in Camp Lejeune, then watched a battalion of marines with their weapons locked and loaded slip in wordless silence beneath me as they approached enemy territory. When I built a bridge near "B" building in Cherry Point, I invited the comely Kathleen McCadden to witness my first crossing. I had painted my face like a Lumbee Indian and wielded a Cherokee tomahawk I had fashioned to earn a silver arrow point as a Cub Scout. My bridge collapsed in a heap around me and I fell into the middle of a shallow creek as poor Kathleen screamed with laughter on the bank. Though a failed bridge maker, I showed more skill in the task of the tomahawk and I felled Kathleen with a wild toss that deflected off her shoulder blade. My mother handled the whipping that night, so further discipline by my father proved unnecessary. For the rest of my life, I would read books on Native Americans and I once coached an Indian baseball team on the Near North Side of Omaha, Nebraska, after my freshman year at The Citadel. Pretty Kathleen McCadden never spoke to me again, and her father always looked as if he wanted to beat me. I was seven years old.

Yet an intellectual life often forms in the strangest, most infertile of conditions. The deep forests of those isolated bases became the kingdom that I took ownership of as a child. I followed the minnow-laced streams as they made their cutting way toward the Trent River. Each time in the woods, I brought my nature-obsessed mother a series of captured animals, from snapping turtles to copperheads. Mom would study their scales or fur or plumage as I brought home everything from baby herons to squirrels for her patient inspection. After she looked over the day's catch, she would shower me with praise, then send me back into the woods to return my captives where I'd discovered them. She told me she thought I could become a world-class naturalist, or even the director of the San Diego Zoo.

At the library she began to check out books that gave me a working knowledge of those creatures that my inquisitive, overprotective dog and I had found while wandering the woods. When Chippie jumped between me and an eastern diamondback rattler and took a strike on the muzzle before she broke the snake's back, my mother decided that I'd do my most important work in the game preserves of Africa with the scent of lions inflaming Chippie's extraordinary sense of smell. By the time I had finished fifth grade, I knew the name of almost every mammal in Africa. I even brought her a baby fox once and had a coral snake in a pickle jar. She answered me with trips to the library, where I found a whole section labeled "Africa," the books oversized and swimming with photographs of creatures with their claws extended and their fangs bared. Elephants moved across parched savannas and hippopotamuses bellowed in the Nile River; crocodiles sunned themselves on riverbanks where herds of zebra came to drink their fill. Books permitted me to embark on dangerous voyages to a world of painted faces of mandrills and leopards scanning the veldt from the high branches of a baobab tree. There was nothing my mother could not bring me from a library. When I met a young marine in the woods one day hunting butterflies with a net and a killing jar, my mother checked out a book that took me far into the world of lepidoptera, with hairstreaks, sulphurs, and fritillaries placed in solemn rows.

Whatever prize I brought out of the woods, my mother could match with a book from the library. She read so many books that she was famous among the librarians in every town she entered. Since she did not attend college, she looked to librarians as her magic carpet into a serious intellectual life. Books contained powerful amulets that could lead to paths of certain wisdom. Novels taught her everything she needed to know about the mysteries and uncertainties of being human. She was sure that if she could find the right book, it would reveal what was necessary for her to become a woman of substance and parts. She outread a whole generation of officers' wives but still wilted in embarrassment when asked about her college degree. I was a teenager when I heard Mom claim that she had just finished her first year at Agnes Scott when she dropped out to marry my father. By the time I graduated from The Citadel, my mother was saying that she had matriculated with honors from Agnes Scott, with a degree in English. Though I feared the possibility of her exposure, I thought that the lie was harmless enough. Her vast reading provided all the armor she needed to camouflage her lack of education. At formal teas, she talked of Pasternak and Dostoyevsky. She subscribed to the Saturday Review, then passed it on to my sister Carol and me after she had read it from cover to cover. After Mom fell in love with John Ciardi, I checked out his translation of Dante's The Divine Comedy. She spoke about the circles of Hell for the rest of her life. Even if Dante daunted and intimidated her, she cherished Eudora Welty and Edith Wharton and knew her way around the works of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Whenever she opened a new book, she could escape the exhausting life of a mother of seven and enter into cloistered realms forbidden to a woman born among the mean fields of Georgia.

Peg Conroy used reading as a text of liberation, a way out of the sourceless labyrinth that devoured poor Southern girls like herself. She directed me to every book I ever read until I graduated from the eighth grade at Blessed Sacrament School in Alexandria, Virginia. When I won the Martin T. Quinn Scholarship for Academic Achievement, Mom thought she had produced a genius in the rough.

In high school, my mother surrendered my education up to the English teachers who would lead me blindfolded toward the astonishments that literature had to offer. In Belmont, North Carolina, Sister Mary Ann of the Order of the Sacred Heart taught a small but serious class in that Book of Common Prayer that makes up the bulk of a fourteen-year-old American's introduction to the great writers of the world. It took me six months to fathom the mystery that my mother was copying out my homework assignments in an act of mimicry that made me pity her in some ways but admire her indefatigable trek toward self-improvement in others. It was a year my father made dangerous for me, and there was a strange correlation between his brutality and my reaching puberty that was then incomprehensible to me. It infuriated him when he found my mother and me discussing an Edgar Allan Poe short story or Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." He found me showing off and vain. It marked the year my blue eyes began to burn with hatred whenever he entered a room. Though I tried, I could not control that loathing no matter what strategies I used. He would take me by the throat in that tiny house on Kees Road, lift me off my feet, strangle me and beat my head against the wall. When later I was living by myself in Atlanta in 1979, my father came to visit me after an extended visit with all his children. He recounted a story that my brother Jim had told him, and said, "Jesus, my kids can make shit up. Jim claimed that his first memory of you was me beating your brains out against some wall. Isn't that hilarious?"

"I can show you the wall," I said.

On the day Sister Mary Ann handed out copies of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, I understood at last that I was coming face-to-face with the greatest writer who ever lived. The strangeness of Elizabethan dialogue stymied me at first, but I was taking turns reading it with my mother, and noted her own puzzlement as we encountered a diction and elaborate phrasing that was unfamiliar to us. When Orsino opens the play with his famous declaration, "If music be the food of love, play on," we were fine, but both of us were stopped in midsentence by a word unknown to us--"surfeiting."

"Look it up, Pat," Mom said. "If we don't know a word, we can't understand the sentence."

I looked up the word and said, "You eat too much. You get too full."

"Like the radio, if they play a song too much, you get sick of it. It happened to me with 'Tennessee Waltz,'" she said.

The next stoppage of our kitchen performance took place when the servant Curio asked the duke if he would go hunting the "hart."

"Maybe it's a misprint," Mom said. "What does it mean?"

"In England it's a deer. A red deer," I said, consulting the dictionary.

"Okay, the duke says that music is the food of love," she said. "I got it. It's a pun. A pun! The duke is in love, so he's going to be hunting the human heart of a young woman."

I've never been a great admirer of the pun, so I didn't quite catch my mother's drift because there lives a strange literalist inside me who swats away at puns as though routing a swarm of flies. It's hard to take pleasure in something you don't understand and in my own psyche, a "hart" could never pass for a "heart." But looking back at the play I haven't read for fifty years, it strikes me now that my mother was correct in her assessment of the Shakespearean world. For the rest of my high school and college career, she read every short story, poem, play, and novel that I read. I would bring notebooks home from The Citadel, and Mom would devour those of each literature course I took. Only after her death did I realize that my mother entered The Citadel the same day I did. She made sure that her education was identical to mine. She knew Milton's Paradise Lost a whole lot better than I did.

In my junior year, she developed a schoolgirl crush on Col. James Harrison, who taught American literature. He filled his lectures with a refined erudition, a passion for good writing, and a complete dedication to the task of turning his cadets into well-spoken and clear-thinking young men. But Mom fell head over heels for the lovely man the day Colonel Harrison read the Whitman poem "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." With the softest of voices, he read to his class the poet's moving elegy on the death of Abraham Lincoln. Halfway through his recitation, he confessed to us that he always wept whenever he read that particular poem. He apologized to the class for his lack of professionalism. He wiped his glasses and, with tears streaming down his face, he dismissed the class and headed toward his office. The grandson of a Confederate officer had been moved to tears by a poem commemorating the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. For me that day will last forever. I had no idea that poetry could bring a grown man to his knees until Colonel Harrison proved it. It ratified a theory of mine that great writing could sneak up on you, master of a thousand disguises: prodigal kinsman, messenger boy, class clown, commander of artillery, altar boy, lace maker, exiled king, peacemaker, or moon goddess. I had witnessed with my own eyes that a poem made a colonel cry. Though it was not part of a lesson plan, it imparted a truth that left me spellbound. Great words, arranged with cunning and artistry, could change the perceived world for some readers. From the beginning I've searched out those writers unafraid to stir up the emotions, who entrust me with their darkest passions, their most indestructible yearnings, and their most soul-killing doubts. I trust the great novelists to teach me how to live, how to feel, how to love and hate. I trust them to show me the dangers I will encounter on the road as I stagger on my own troubled passage through a complicated life of books that try to teach me how to die.

I take it as an article of faith that the novels I’ve loved will live inside me forever. Let me call on the spirit of Anna Karenina as she steps out onto the train tracks of Moscow in the last minute of her glorious and implacable life. Let me beckon Madame Bovary to issue me a cursory note of warning whenever I get suicidal or despairing as I live out a life too sad by half. If I close my eyes I can conjure up a whole country of the dead who will live for all time because writers turned them into living flesh and blood. There is Jay Gatsby floating face downward in his swimming pool or Tom Robinson’s  bullet- riddled body cut down in his Alabama prison yard in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Hector can still impart lessons about honor as he rides out to face Achilles on the plains of Troy. At any time, night or day, I can conjure up the fatal love of Romeo for the raven- haired Juliet. The insufferable Casaubon dies in Middlemarch and Robert Jordan awaits his death in the mountains of Spain in For Whom the Bell Tolls. In Look Homeward, Angel, the death of Ben Gant can still make me weep, as can the death of Thomas Wolfe’s  stone- carving father in Of Time and the River. On the isle of Crete I bought Report to Greco by Nikos Kazantzakis and still see the immortal scene when the author’s father took him to a devastated garden to witness the swinging bodies of Greek patriots hanging from the branches of fruit trees. In a scene that has haunted me since I first read it, the father lifted his son off the Cretan earth and made the boy kiss the bottom of the dead men’s feet. Though nearly gagging, the young Kazantzakis kisses dirt from the lifeless feet as the father tells him that’s what courage tastes like, that’s what free­dom tastes like.

When Isabel Archer falls in love with Gilbert Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady, I still want to signal her to the dangers inherent in this fatal choice of a husband, one whose cunning took on an attractive finish but lacked depth. She has chosen a man whose character was not only undistinguished, but also salable to the highest bidder.
To my mother, a library was a palace of desire masquer­ading in a wilderness of books. In the downtown library of Orlando, Florida, Mom pointed out a solid embank­ment of books. In serious battalions the volumes stood in strict formations,  straight- backed and squared away. They looked like unsmiling volunteers shined and ready for dress parade. “What furniture, what furniture!” she cried, admir­ing those books looking out on a street lined with palms and hibiscus.

I was eleven years old that year, and my brother Jim was an infant. Mom walked her brood of six children along the banks of Lake Eola on the way home to Livingston Street. My uncle Russ would leave his dentist’s office at five, pick up the books my mother had checked out for her­self and her kids, and hand- deliver them on his way home to North Hyer Street. On this particular day, Mom stopped with her incurious children near an artist putting the fin­ishing touches on a landscape illuminating one corner of the park surrounding the lake. She gazed at the painting with a joyful intensity as the artist painted a snow- white lily on a footprint- shaped pad as a final, insouciant touch. Mom squealed with pleasure and the bargaining began. From the beginning, the Florida artist Jack W. Lawrence was putty in my comely mother’s hands. Flirtation was less of an art form with her than it was a means to an end, or a way of life. Jack demanded fifty dollars for his masterwork and after much charming repartee between artist and customer, he let it go for ten.

That painting hangs in my writing room today. I am staring at the singular lily nesting like a dove in that ethe­real place where my mother purchased her first work of art in 1956 in a backwater city dimpled with lakes. The next week, she checked out large art books from the library and spread them out for Carol and me and read out names seething with musicality and strangeness. A library could show you everything if you knew where to look. Jack W. Lawrence led my mother, who led her children to Giotto, the shepherd, to Michelangelo of the Sistine Chapel, to Raphael and his exquisite Madonnas. Years later, I took Mom to the Vatican Library and a tour of the Sistine Cha­pel; then we visited the tomb of Raphael at the Pantheon. As we spoke of Raphael, she remembered the book she checked out on the Renaissance in that Florida library. We remembered our chance encounter with Mr. Lawrence and our awed eyewitness to that fi nal, emblematic lily.

My mother hungered for art, for illumination, for some path to lead her to a shining way to call her own. She lit sig­nal fires in the hills for her son to feel and follow. I tremble with gratitude as I honor her name.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Reading Group Guide

1.

Conroy believes that no other single novel shaped his view of the South more than his early reading of Gone with the Wind. What does he like about that book, and what echoes of it do you see in his work?  Can you think of a fictional character that might have influence your behavior or your world view as Scarlet O’Hara shaped Conroy’s mother’s view of herself and the world around her?

2. In “The Teacher,” Conroy writes that Mr. Norris’s life was “rich in the guidance of children not his own.” What do you make of this observation? Why might Conroy emphasize the importance of non-familial ties?

3. In “The Librarian,” Conroy’s teaching colleague Miss Hunter opposes school integration, a cause that is close to his heart. He writes, “She and I would clash often over her treatment of my black students.” How is Conroy’s compassion for his black students echoed in the essay’s final scene? Do you think Miss Hunter was deserving of Conroy’s kindness?

4. In the last section of “The Old New York Book Shop,” Conroy mourns the closing of a store that played a significant role in his life, finding it “sad beyond commentary.” Considering the rise of e-readers and online retailers, do you think bookstores are necessary, or dispensable? Do bookstores have an effect on your reading habits? Has Conroy’s evocation of the Old New York Book Shop altered your opinion about bookstores?

5. In his chapter on Paris, Conroy writes about his vivid experiences in that particular city, and the ways in which he was profoundly influenced by his surroundings. He learned so much not only about others, but also about himself - his own temperament and spirit. Have you ever had a similar connection to a place? In what ways did it shape you, and what did you learn about yourself as a result?

6. Conroy writes, "Here's what I love: when a great writer turns me into a Jew from Chicago, a lesbian out of South Carolina, or a black woman moving into a subway entrance in Harlem. Turn me into something else, writers of the world." What book has most transformed you into one of its characters? Was this character markedly similar to or completely different from you? How, in your opinion, did the author achieve this?  

7. War and Peace is a touchstone book for Conroy. He has read it multiple times throughout his life, and each reading revealed new aspects to him and provided new interpretations he had not considered before. Is there a book that you have returned to and found new meaning in on a second (or third, etc.) read? What is it about that particular book that draws you back to it?

8. Throughout the book, Conroy mentions instances in which books provided a means for talking about and coming to terms with difficult aspects of his own life. For example, when discussing Look Homeward, Angel with his mother, he found that "the book made areas accessible to us that has carried the impediment of taboo before. We began to talk more freely about my father's violence and how that family secret had extracted a price from us." What do you think about this notion that books have the power to strengthen our relationships with others, that they can have a measurable positive impact on our lives? Can all books achieve this, or only specific kinds? Has a book ever changed your life in that way? 

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 54 )
Rating Distribution

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(19)

4 Star

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2 Star

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 54 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 25, 2010

    I enjoyed it and would recommend it to any of his fans. He has a gift for putting the words on paper and breathing life into them.

    I thought this would be an interesting little read and I was not disappointed. I was lucky enough to secure a bound manuscript copy from the publisher.
    Using a variety of books he has read, over his lifetime, Conroy lets us explore his life with him. We meet his very abusive father whom he learns to love; his mother, who feels second class because of her lack of education and therefore reads everything she can get her hands on, including his reading lists, who yearns for an education and imparts this very love of knowledge to him as they read many of the books together; his poetess sister; his teacher who mentored him, the antithesis of his father, a surrogate parent who was the inspiration of his dream to write; his close friend who owns a marvelous bookstore that he explores often and where he begins to become a collector; an eccentric teacher with an odd "medicinal" need for a bit of liquor who really doesn't belong in a library mentoring kids or in a classroom, her personality is so opposite one that encourages learning through the wonderful doors that books can open; many famous authors, among them Alice Walker who is rude to him because she doesn't like Southern white men and Thomas Wolfe, whom he credits for his writing career plus so many others that have walked with him through his life via his literary universe. We are travelers with him down the road as he searches for his real purpose.
    Conroy was a lonely young boy, moving from place to place, year after year, as an army brat. I tagged along through his memories as he grew up as a proper Southerner, without the customary prejudices inherent in those times, in fact, he seemed almost colorblind. Since the world was not, he suffered for his openness and all embracing spirit even being fired from a teaching job because he showed an appreciation and affection for students that were non-white.
    Because of his father's military service, he moved around a lot and did not have strong roots to any one place; I learned that he was often alone and, at times, sad to the point of depression with thoughts of suicide. His marriage is a failure. From his background, he learned to expect and need order and organization. He became a creature of strong habits.
    His anecdotes are honest and straightforward. Most of them will delight you. They are often humorous even when they are descriptions of dangerous escapades. It is an open and objective appraisal of the events and the people that populated his life.
    Like Conroy, I wondered what kind of man he would have been if his background had been different. Many of his stories use themes of his past. His sojourn in Paris is a high spot in his life. From witnessing an explosion and fire there, seeing the victim burning and attempting to save him, he finally sees a shape and purpose to his life. He discovers that his passion is just that.he is "a man on fire". He needs to express himself. First he tried to be a poet but was unsuccessful and his career ultimately took off when he became a writer of prose, of novels and now this lovely, little tale of how he grew up through the pages of various books and the friendships of some marvelous, although somewhat unusual, outside of the box, people.
    Although, at times it was a bit slow and repetitive with anecdotes that moved back and forth in time, out of sequence, i enjoyed it. It is a warmhearted, honest appraisal of his life experiences. Just a discussion of the books and authors

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 13, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Both Confession and Illumination

    Pat Conroy could write about the telephone directory and create a mesmerizing story. My Reading Life is both confession and illumination on Conroy's existence and passions. While this book contains snippets of Conroy's life as consummate reader, he bares his soul on many levels. Writing appears to be a means of catharsis for him. He gives credit to major influences in his life from his mother to teachers, authors to book sellers. In the chapter on Paris, his wonderful sense of humor shines through when he describes Parisians. "When they fix you in their imperious stares, it is as if they are studying you from the raised periscopes of submarines right before they blow you out of the water." And his damaged self is revealed once again in the chapter on being a military brat. (I highly recommend another book on this subject, "The Yokota Officer's Club" by Sarah Bird.) My Reading Life helps explain how Conroy has become the fabulous writer he is today. Filled with keen observations and total memory recall, his anecdotes are always entertaining. Pat Conroy is without a doubt my favorite living author. Fans will not be disappointed.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 28, 2010

    Glimpse Into An Author's Mind

    Mr. Conroy loves words. He loves their flow, their tumble and play. And he isn't afraid to use them. I learned this when I first start reading his fiction with its exultant, flowery phrases, with its parallels to his own life. This nonfiction book tells me why he writes as he does. Although titled My Reading Life, this book is also about his writing life and his life in general. The fifteen chapters each address a different person or book or time that ultimately shaped who he is and how he writes. "I grew up a word-haunted boy. I felt words inside me and stored them wondrous as pearls. I mouthed them and fingered them and rolled them around my tongue. My mother filled my bedtime hour with poetry that rang like Sanctus bells as she praised the ineffable loveliness of the English language with her Georgia-scented voice. I found that hive of words beautiful beyond all conveyance." I was horrified and embarrassed as a woman to learn how badly he was treated at a writers' conference in the early days of militant feminism, how one famous author whose work I have greatly admired dismissed him out-of-hand because he was a Southern white boy. I loved the glimpses into other authors' lives, how their writings and their personalities could be at such odds. I hated some of the descriptions of his life in Paris, of the horse butchers, of the "fifty Algerian men bidding on the very young girl in the window." "There was an auctioneer in front of the window chiding the men for their cheapness, and the noise rose in pitch as the bidding grew feverish. The girl was very young, fragile, and she was not smiling." How can someone see that and not want to do something to help the girl? How can anyone wonder about the girl's thoughts but stay a passive observer? I am one of those readers who doesn't want all the sentences I read to be lean, even though there can be beauty in their sparseness. I like the sentences that carry me off, let me smell and see and feel. Pat Conroy can write these sentences. "I long for that special moment when I take off into the pure oxygen-rich sky of a sentence that streaks off into a night where I cannot follow, where I lose control, where the language seizes me and shakes me in such a way that I feel like both its victim and its copilot." The next time I read Conroy's fiction, I will appreciate it all the more for understanding a bit of the man who wrote it. The quotes were taken from a pre-publication bound manuscript and may change in the published edition. Thank you to the publisher for providing me with a copy.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 23, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Highly Recommended!

    Pat Conroy has a way with his words that bring life into books. This book is that way and a must read for any bibliophile.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 24, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Now you know why!

    I found Conroy's book to be most revealing about why he thinks the way he does and why he writes about what he does. You will find many interesting side stories as you read, also, things you might not have gotten to know if you had just met him somewhere. He explains his feelings in detail. If you're a Pat Conroy fan, you need to read this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 23, 2012

    Admirable man writes a humble, honest biography.

    I love Pat Conroy. His honest decription of his traumatic childhood and passion for the written word are nothing short of inspiring. He spoke at my graduate school graduation and my family and I have been fans ever since.

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    Posted August 7, 2011

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