Pat Conroy’s newest memoir, My Reading Life, is a meditation on his life and how the books he has read have defined both his career and his personal life. It is a lovely little book, filled with humour and self-deprecation and reflection, in the same vein as all of Conroy’s writing.
Conroy has always been very up-front about his difficult upbringing and the challenges he has faced as an adult, and many of his characters and stories are drawn from his personal experiences. In this book, he repeatedly explores the idea that he writes to explain his life to himself, and reads to explore the world around him. This is a good reminder of why certain motifs are repeatedly explored in his books – the abusive father, the mysterious and long suffering mother, the male protagonist messing up his romantic life and always wanting to rescue people, the lonely life of the military brat, etc. Conroy also offers some insight into his writing style, with an intense love of story, words and adjectives. He amusingly admits he is not able to restrain himself from using his trademark styles and words, a pattern evident throughout this book as well.
A few chapters consist of Conroy expressing love and admiration for a few specific authors and their books, including Margaret Mitchell, Thomas Wolfe and James Dickey. While admiring the authors and their books, he also talks about how they have influenced his own work, which is always interesting to read. The chapter on Thomas Wolfe, in particular, is very funny while being a sincere homage to his literary hero. Conroy is enormously well read, and his descriptions of his library made me a wee bit jealous.
There are many interesting anecdotes in the book as well, and gives some interesting background on how books are sold to retailers. Conroy also is very upfront about his experiences with other writers, including some that are very famous. One notable example is that author Alice Walker was very rude to Conroy when he asked her to sign his book and was expressing admiration for her work – she refused to speak to him at all and he describes Walker as being “as friendly as a cow turd on an altar step.” Conroy has had a very interesting life, and seems to have found himself with an interesting group of friends and aquaintances (his cookbook actually has some great stories in the same vein).
My Reading Life has inspired me to try War and Peace again, as well as Look Homeward, Angel – certainly a nice feeling to be left with after reading a book. I generally enjoy reading books about how other people love books, and I have loved nearly all of Conroy’s work (South of Broad being the exception), so I am an excellent audience for this book. However, this really was a great book that would likely please a wide audience, being part memoir, part tribute to story and how it enriches a life, with a bit of criticism of 20th century literature thrown in for good measure.