Log in

No account? Create an account

My Reading Life by Pat Conroy

I read Pat Conroy's My Reading Life to get a glimpse into the mind of a fellow bibliophile. It met this expectation, and gave me a bit more. It certainly whetted my already voracious literary appetite, and piqued my interest in some books I would have not otherwise considered. But the reader is also introduced to a lot of colorful characters he met in his pursuit of reading material.

Two of the books he discusses at length are Gone With The Wind and War And Peace. As I said, I never thought I would be interested in either of these books. I've never seen the movie Gone With The Wind or had any desire to. I always thought you had to be a woman, and even older and more southern than even I am to appreciate it. Passages like the following disavowed me of this notion:

Gone With The Wind tells the whole story of a lost society through the eyes of a single woman, and that woman proves match enough for a world of war, an army of occupation,and every man who enters the sugared realms of her attraction

I'd read a 1000 page novel to get to know a woman like that. I'd even give a damn about her.

Conroy devotes a chapter to War And Peace. I have never much been interested in reading that one, either. The combination of it's legendary length and keeping up with the all the Russian names (a challenge I've met before in reading Dostoyevsky) has intimidated me. But Conroy leads me to believe that this might be a challenge worth taking on. He lovingly describes the various characters as if they were people he knew in real life. Conroy is probably the first person to make me think of War And Peace as something other than the iconic long book.

As I said, there are people as well as books remembered in this memoir. Chief among these is his mother. She was an autodidact who never went to college but probably read more great literature than most English majors. She nurtured in her son her love of literature in general and Gone With The Wind in particular. She also passed on a love of the south. Once in Atlanta, she asked him "Can you imagine how beautiful Atlanta would be if Sherman had never been born?".

Conroy made me fall in love with his mother. No other write has ever been as successful at making me fall in love with a woman he was writing about. This is coming from someone who has read a ton of Larry McMurtry.

He writes about a school librarian named Eileen Hunter. A school librarian seems like an obvious character in a memoir of reading, but Eileen Hunter is not a sweet old woman who nurtured a love of reading in all of the students. She was was a cantankerous, deeply flawed woman who cared more about keeping chewing gum out of the library than she did about students or books. She saw the latter two things as complications in her job. She was also an alcoholic and a racist.

Hunter talked Conroy into procuring Jack Daniels for her, so she could be spared the embarrassment. Today this would be called enabling, but it's hard not to feel affection for Conroy as he indulges her.

As for the racism, he deplored it while making allowances for her ignorance and insecurity. When he returned to the school as a teacher, he argued with her about her treatment of his black students. "I'd like you to be fair to them" he asked her, adding
"I only ask that you treat them as badly as you do the white students."

One might wonder why such a flawed, downright nasty person would merit a chapter in his book. He gives an explanation only a great writer would give "I can forgive almost any crime if a great story is left in it's wake." Another reason, which he is too modest to state explicitly is that he has a great big heart. "I think I was as fond of Eileen Hunter as anyone she ever met, and I believe she knew that."

Something he writes later in the book sheds more light on his relationship with Miss Turner:

As an American liberal with impeccable credentials, I would like to say that political correctness is going to kill American liberalism if it is not fought to the death by people like me for the dangers it represents to ...openheartedness...It is a form of both madness and maggotry...

These words were written out of concern for what political correctness was going to do to the reputation of James Dickey, an author Conroy greatly admires. But they could just as easily have been written in defense of Miss Turner. Dickey is an old-school liberal.
Today's progressive hipsters would have taken all the intolerance and hatred they'd repressed and let it slop over on to Eileen Turner. Dickey is bigger than that. His liberalism is informed by a love of people (not humanity).

Experiencing this love of people, as well as his love of books, made My Reading Life an absolute joy to read.