Thursday, January 5, 2012

My Reading Life

I have liked most of Pat Conroy's novels, and I loved this little book of his. It is such a personal peek into his life, the people who influenced his reading and writing, and the books that have, in his words, "set me on fire."  There are so many passages in the book that I have written down and books that I have added to my "Must Read" list.  Chapters are devoted to the people in his life who have made him the reader/writer that he is today: his mother, Mary, an obsessive reader; his high school English teacher from Beaufort High School;  the high school librarian who confronted him about the books he read; the friend/owner of a beloved bookshop in Atlanta, The Old New York Book Shop.  He is a little over the top in his praise for Thomas Wolfe,  Leo Tolstoy, and James Dickey, but he is convincing. I loved the novels of Thomas Wolfe when I was younger, and reading this book makes me want to read him all over again and see what it was that so appealed to me.

He considers Tolstoy the best writer of all time, and War and Peace the best book on war ever, as well as the best book on peace. "Reading Tolstoy makes us strive to be better people: better husbands and wives, children and friends. ...Once you have read War and Peace, you will never be the same. That is my promise to you." How can you not try War and Peace after reading that?

Probably my favorite chapter is "The Southerner in Paris," where he writes about living in Paris while writing The Lords of Discipline. The streets of Paris, the bridges and the markets, the gardens and cafes, and most of all the French people come alive in his words.  It's one of the best descriptions of Paris I have read.

In between his remembrances of the people who have influenced his writing, he talks about his novels, his love of poetry (he starts out every day by reading a poem),  the discipline of writing,  and what he expects from writing.

"Now, when I pick up a book, the prayer that rises out me is that it changes me utterly and that I am not the man who first selected that book from a well-stocked shelf. Here's what I love: when a great writer turns me into a Jew from Chicago, a lesbian out of South Carolina, or a black woman moving into a subway entrance in Harlem. Turn me into something else, writers of the world. Make me Muslim, heretic, hermaphrodite. Put me into a crusader's armor, a cardinal's vestments. Let me feel the pygmy's heartbeat, the queen's breast, the torturer's pleasure, the Nile's taste, or the nomad's thirst. Tell me everything I must know. Hold nothing back."

I am a sucker for books like this,  for anyone who loves reading and likes to write about it. It might be a little too impassioned for some, but it made me want to go get a copy of Anna Karenina.

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