Review: Conroy’s Reading Life
In 2009, I became interested in Louis L’Amour Westerns by reading his Education of a Wandering Man. Two weeks ago, perusing Amazon, Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life struck my eye so I bought it, and read it as soon as it arrived. It’s a little volume, and takes hardly any time at all to finish.
Conroy takes us on a tour of his literary adventures, from his mother’s reading to him as a way to educate herself; to his awkward teenage years; to his time at The Citadel and as an aspiring writer; to his more mature – but still turbulent – years as a successful author. Through it all, his reading – especially books – anchors Conroy in ways that personal relationships seem unable to. He does not use the word, but his reading helps him redefine himself through the travails of life.
Indeed, at times, Conroy’s reflections become too self-absorbed, too self-centered. His reading acts as a mirror on his life, but some of the best reflections of the book reveal how his readings aid his understanding of the external world. The most poignant passage in the book doesn’t concern the conversations with his dying teacher, but Tolstoy’s War and Peace. “If I were teaching military history in any country in the world, I would make War and Peace required reading for anyone who held any ambition for advancement into the officer corps.” Here he argues for the potent power of great literature, such that it can teach hard, tough men lessons about their hard, tough craft. More, he argues that great literature can make generals better generals by making them better men. We are well-served when potent writers remind us of this truth. Even after hearing friends and reading critics discuss the virtues of the book, I never wanted to read it. Now I do.
Besides the chapter on Tolstoy, the other superlative chapter concerns Gone With the Wind. Conroy takes us back to when the book became a literary and cultural phenomenon. Most writers would give anything to sell the number of copies in year one of a release that Gone With the Wind sells today, 75 years after its initial publication. As with War and Peace – even after seeing the movie and hearing dozens of people talk about the power of the book, I didn’t understand its appeal. Now I do.
Great books should lead to the reading of other great books. Theodore Roosevelt’s Autobiography led me to Edmund Morris’ The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, which I just started. Conroy has given me several reading ideas, including his own books. For years, friends have urged me to read Conroy, especially The Lords of Discipline and The Great Santini. For whatever reason, I never have, but after My Reading Life, I picked up a copy of The Lords of Discipline on Alibris and can’t wait for it to get here.