Living

Conroy pens ode to literature

"My Reading Life," the latest memoir by celebrated Fripp Island novelist and nonfiction writer Pat Conroy extols the glories of books. It also offers heartfelt thanks to those who encouraged a passion that led him to writing.

Conroy's latest was released Tuesday. The author says he is disconcerted by the way reading is changing.

"It grieves me," he said. "I don't know if the book as we know it will be around much longer. I read a thing that startled me the other day, that books will be obsolete in two years. If so, my house is full of worthless things."

Not so, of course. And the new landscape of publishing will not affect Conroy.

"It will not affect the way I feel about books. I still buy tons of them, and I love them. I am still transported. I am still delighted. I still love getting into bed reading. I read more than 200 pages a day. It's a way of life. And nothing excites me more than hearing about a new, good book."

Conroy celebrated his 65th birthday recently, and was of a more reflective temper than usual. Fitting, given the people he remembers in "My Reading Life."

While woven throughout are Conroy's favorite authors and books, it is those who influenced him that emerge most vividly, not least his mother, who "lit signal fires in the hills for her son to feel and follow."

"It changed everything about my life, having a mother who read like she did. I was lucky to have that woman as a mother. I'm also writing about her intensively and extensively in a new book, 'The Death of Santini,' which I interrupted to do 'My Reading Life.' I'm also writing about Dad again. And at the end of the book I'm going to say, 'Mom, Dad: I leave you now. I will never have to come here again. I've written about my parents more than any writer in world history. I understand you did the best you could, gave me gifts, gave me things I will be grateful for the rest of my days. But I don't have to do this any more. I can finally let you rest in peace.

"I've been wanting to write those words my whole career."

AN INSATIABLE HUNGER

Apart from the stimulus supplied by his mother ("She raised me to be a Southern writer"), Conroy said his reading first became wide-ranging -- devouring poetry, history, philosophy, fiction and stories of the South -- thanks to the encouragement of a Jesuit teacher, Joseph Monte.

"He was the first absolutely charismatic teacher I had. He had greatness written all over him. I remember that when he first came into our room, looking at this little class of sophomore Catholic boys, and said 'What a shame none of you has read 10,000 books. Perhaps then, we could begin to have a conversation.

"I thought, '10,000 books! How is that possible in a lifetime?' But he got us all to read."

And read he did, like a ravenous beast. Conroy supped on Thucydides and Milton, Tolstoy and Tolkien, Thomas Wolfe and Margaret Mitchell, the great poets. Everything he could get his hands on. Later, it was Roth, Borges and the literary lions of a new era.

Then there was Gene Norris, his high school English teacher and mentor. Conroy often has spoken of how influential Norris was in his life. No less so as a reader.

"He was the best of the best. He changed a whole generation of kids. And it was Gene who gave me his copy of Thomas Wolfe's 'Look Homeward, Angel,' making a big deal out if it. That novel ripped into me. It was one of those books I read at the right time of my life, a book I was ready for. My mother and sister also read it. And now I think I related to it so strongly because Wolfe's father was a brutal guy when he got drunk. It was also about a young boy, Eugene Gant, and I identified totally with him.

"Later when I read it again, I realized why: I was moving every year, and he was moving from room to room in that boarding house every night. He did not have a bed of his own.

"Also, I was struck by the complicated love he had for his family. The death of his brother, Ben, is still one of the great death scenes in literature to me. God, that was powerful to me."

Literary agent Norman Berg, to whom he was introduced by Norris, helped Conroy develop a philosophy of writing. He also credits his English teachers at The Citadel.

"I feel as lucky as anybody on Earth with the people I met growing up."

EMBRACING THE FEAST

Near the close, Conroy renders this passage: "I wrote to explain my own life to myself, stories are the vessels I use to interpret the world to myself."

How's his grasp of self at this juncture of his reading and writing life? What does he continue to unearth?

"Here's what I didn't know in the beginning. I did not know you kept learning more and more. I did not know about the pleasures -- and the horrors -- of looking back. But there are great pleasures in looking back, because you survey the years and you can see what happened. I know this now."

Conroy paused in the middle of writing "The Death of Santini" to mine his lifetime of reading, an idea that was not his own.

"I think it was either Nan Talese (his publisher) or Marly Russoff (agent) or both who had this idea. Truthfully, I think it's because (book) publishing is getting in the same desperate straits as newspapers are.

"I also think they wanted me to do it because 'South of Broad' sold better than they thought it would, and they wanted me to get a book out faster than the 14 years it usually takes me between books," he said.

"But also my own mortality is coming up, so I have been trying to write faster. I've been trying to work harder and do more. When I look at obituaries now, here's all I see: people dying at 49 and 58, and I think, 'We don't know when this is coming.' So I've been working longer days, taking it seriously."

Yet he's still writing in his inimitably word-rich style, embracing the feast that is language. A style that Conroy recognizes is not everyone's cup of java.

"I can't help it. Some say 'You're a show-offy writer.' Yes, I am. Or 'You over-write.' Yes, I do. Wolfe showed me my great loves, of the long line, of language. I came into the wrong age, and I understand that. But it now can be of this style, 'That is who I am.' "

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