Curse you, Pat Conroy! Another night and most of a day immersed in one of his offerings, My Reading Life; so often have I been consumed by his words and mesmerized by how he retroactively tickled hidden ivories of my own life. And he is wrong when he asserts he never taught after his experience on Daufuskie; perhaps he did not stand before a gaggle of students, but his books entertained and instructed me from the start, a gripping sojourn begun with The Lords of Discipline, a gift from my mother. I tracked down The Boo and The Water Is Wide, and devoured them too, and have swept through all his remaining books (though, I haven’t been able to force myself to read the cookbook). I have many literary loves now, but Lords will remain one of my all-time favorites. I remember quivering outside a USC auditorium, lucky to listen in as he spoke about James Dickey (a speech reproduced in a chapter here), eager to get a glimpse of him, laughing as he told the river story, understanding his impressions of Dickey firsthand (whom I met several times, but did not like); and then he emerged, surrounded by a flock of adoring fans, and I managed to squeeze through and offer my hand, which he took. He looked as if he expected me to ask for his autograph, but I just stared (no doubt with a shit-eating grin) and said, “I just wanted to shake your hand.” I love that my former boss and mentor (in many ways) Matthew Bruccoli allowed me the opportunity to attend, even if I was there to work.
My Reading Life is less a list of important reads, although it is that too, than a memoir of people and places, family and friends, who instructed and influenced his writing. Anyone who loves his stuff will revel in the chapters that flesh out what they already know, because his books have already revealed many of his personal demons. Yet this book is by no means depressing or difficult; the stories are painted with humor and love, and maybe even a little comeuppance, and a dose of humility (possibly forced, as he must know how good he really is). It is also a call to writers, especially younger ones, to read voraciously, experience vicariously and personally, and, it seems, to blaze a path no matter what others say or how they criticize. He sends love letters to some of his favorite authors---Mitchell, Wolfe, Tolstoy, Dickey, among others----as well as explains the importance (and flaws) of people such as teacher Gene Norris, librarian Eileen Hunter, bookseller Cliff Graubart, bookman Norman Berg, and a cast of other colorful characters. I loved his passing relationship with a Japanese man while both were in Paris, as his breakfasting partner asserts in response to the arrogant waiters that Japan should have passed over Pearl Harbor and attacked France. If you love Conroy, you will feel as if you are listening in his parlor, and hopefully it may bring new readers to his novels.