My Reading Life. Pat Conroy

My Reading Life. Pat Conroy. Order it Here.

The essay has been making a real comeback lately with all sorts of novelists offering a book of their own. Pat Conroy is a person whose fiction work I am not terribly interested in, however, I am a sucker for books about the love of books. Books by people that share my point of view that literature is a grand thing and ought not to be ignored, that it offers us access to better things are almost always delicious. So when I received a copy of his little book on his life spent reading I jumped in. The essays in the book are persuasive in that they make you want to go and read the books he discusses, they are are beautiful because you get to know him and some of the role models in his life.

He summed up my feelings about authors that are too narrative driven and unconcerned with the beauty hidden within the language when he notes, “To be boring is not just a sin it’s a crime.” I might add that to waste your time on such works is a shame as well, which is something he discusses later, “I selected all my books for the possibility of some flare of candles along the road toward illumination or enchantment.” Do you have a hard time knowing if what you are reading is up to a standard you can be proud of? Consider the following, “Safety is a crime writers should never commit unless they are after tenure or praise.” Is the book you are reading in this category? I suspect not all books hold the same potential to enlighten and delight us and I know each of us only has so much time. The conclusion is obvious.

To read for any other goal seems like a waste of time, I have relaxed by lakes with books that have blown me away. Conroy takes this to an extreme, “When I pick up a book, the prayer that rises out of me is that it changes me utterly and that I am not the man who first selected that book from a well-stocked shelf,” but I think he is on to something. When is the last time you read a book you thought my impact the way you read the world?

On censorship he is purposeful and direct. Explaining the issue, “There was nothing to fear in The Catcher in the Rye except the danger of its being censored by people who hadn’t read it.” Every reader knows that freedom of choice is crucial. The homogenization of our culture where everyone seems to read whatever best selling pablum is du jour has me worried and I think the sad state of our democracies, our national and individual finances and our environmental record all speak to the impact of this (of course there are many other factors). Conroy knows at least one person that agrees with me, “He found most of modern life unbearable and the rest indefensible.” Literature is of course the avenue this character uses to not lose all hope.
Like many die hard readers I am an advocate of the ability of literature to make us better people, to offer us models to follow. Conroy claims, “Reading Tolstoy makes us strive to be better people: better husbands and wives, children and friends. He tries to teach us how to live by letting us participate in the brimming, storied experiences of his fictional world.” There are many characters that define virtuous traits for us, all we have to do is read about them ans we gain access to what it can mean to be human. Regular reading allows us to constantly remember the standards we wish to set for ourselves, higher, I hope, than those we see on television and in Hollywood movies.
Sadly the power of the novel is diminishing. Its role in society is waning. Conroy laments,”I was born into the century in which novels lost their stories, poems their rhymes, paintings their form, and music its beauty, but that does not mean I had to like that trend or go along with it. I fight against these movements with every book I write.”  While I disagree with his aesthetics, I do see what he is saying. Art has ceased to talk to the everyman, maybe it never did. But I know that I hear a lot of people say DeLillo and Pynchon are incomprehensible, or Pollock can’t paint. The disconnect is real and it is a shame. Maybe because they misunderstood Ray Bradbury Amazon now sells “Kindle Singles” that try to abridge long books, leaving the key components (about 80 pages), as though War and Peace could have been shorter. The loss in this is tragic and I sincerely hope people do not buy into this new way of reading, I really really hope that they do not read these and decide the classics are just as useless as they always thought. (A thought they have been taught by those who stand to benefit enormously from best sellers).

A few more ideas and beautiful lines from an engaged mind:

On Poetry and language: “Poets candle the pilot light where language hides from itself.”
On reading:  “That’s what a good book does–it puts readers on their knees. It makes you want to believe in a world you just read about–the one that will make you feel different about the world you thought you lived in, the world that will never be the same.”

On book construction: “The slender volume looks as though it might have been milled with butterfly wings and the armored enamel of ladybugs.”

If you love reading and are not sure why this book may help. If you love characters you should read this book because it is full of them, including a bookstore owner that knows essentially nothing about books (he places The Great Gatsby in Mystery because that is what the title suggests to him). If you want to be reminded why you love reading or are looking for a new list of books to work on I suggest you sit back an enjoy and evening with Mr. Conroy, you will not regret it.

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