Conroy, Pat. My Reading Life. New York: Nan A. Telese/Doubleday, 2010.
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I’ve loved Pat Conroy ever since I read The Lords of Discipline during my first year of college. I couldn’t put the book down, to the detriment of my statistics homework. I never did catch up in that class and very nearly failed it, which taught me two very important lessons:
1. Recreational reading was best left for the summer months and Christmas breaks.
2. I am a sucker for brilliant storytelling, so much so that I’m willing to suffer any sort of consequences in order to listen to one (or to read one as the case may be with Conroy).
My Reading Life is a little gem of a book that helps fill in the colors in the line drawing those of us who’ve read Conroy’s novels have of his life. I was happy to see him address head-on the criticisms that have been hurled at him, mainly that he needs a good editor (I assure you, if you read the book, you will learn that he’s had excellent editors — including some who weren’t even paid to edit his work and who didn’t necessarily take red pencils to his manuscripts but who encouraged him in the ways good editors should by introducing him to books and writers and experiences that would shape his writing as much as good copyedits could. His own mother was one such “editor”). He’s aware people say this, and, happily, he couldn’t care less.
I agree with him that he will never be a sparse writer, and I love him for it. I’ve often proclaimed that Tolstoy and Dickens and Thackerey (all of whom have featured in Conroy’s reading life) would have had a very difficult time getting published in the 20th and 21st centuries. I’m so glad there are some editors and publishers out there who still see the value of reading the rich, sentimental-but-never-sappy, and oh-so-human works of Pat Conroy.
I’ve often said to people, “The critics [and it’s only critics, because I don’t personally know anyone who’s actually read Conroy who doesn’t like him] say Conroy needs an editor. I don’t think so, because he’s a storyteller, and his stories don’t need editing. I could listen to his Southern-fried stories forever and never want to cut a word.” Is it any wonder that so many of the books he has read and loved were written by some of our best storytellers through the ages?
Conroy tells us in this book that “storyteller” is a label critics have given him, as if it’s something to be disparaged. I’ve never read that, but if so, shame on the critics for disparaging storytellers. It takes great talent to tell a story well, to keep people’s interest, and we’d be lost without stories, which are one of the few things we have to help us understand our world and how to find our way in it. I’ve always bowed down to great storytellers and those who tell them, and I was happy to find that I’m in good company with Conroy.
In fact, I was happy to know that I agree with him on so many points. His passion for books and reading could certainly rival mine. I loved reading his confessions of how, as a young writer, he plagiarized his favorite authors (he certainly could have filed a lawsuit against me if anything I’d written in my late teens and early twenties had ever been published). He finds the same sorts of things sad that I do (the loss of a favorite bookstore in Atlanta where he spent many hours and attended fantastic parties during his early writing career; the fact that his mother, once she divorced his father, was basically given nothing by our government in the way of support despite her own special service to our country in the life she endured as the wife of a marine) and admirable (authors who don’t take advantage of adoring young fans, fathers who are good to their kids). The passion I’ve come to know and love, surely familiar to all Conroy enthusiasts, is fully on display here. If you’ve ever read and loved Pat Conroy, you must read this book.