“It involves the eerie mysteries of enchantment itself, the untouchable wizardy that occurs when a story, in all its fragile elegance, speaks to the times in a clear original voice and answer some strange hunger and demands of the zeitgeist.”
Shannon at Books Devoured mailed me this book as a RAK this month because I had it on my amazon wishlist. I had it on my amazon wishlist because someone suggested it when I was enjoying A Passion for Books. (another wonderful book about books, collecting, literature and how books shape our lives btw) So that is how My Reading Life meandered along into my mailbox by chance one day and landed in my life. I’m ever so glad it did.
Conroy’s My Reading Life is witnessing his life story through the literature that shaped who he is today. His mother is featured in many instances, her love of reading, her need to better herself through books and my favorite chapter, her devotion to Gone with the Wind.
“To Southerners like my mother, Gone with the Wind was not just a book; it was an answer, a clenched fist raised to the North, an anthem of defiance. If you could not defeat the Yankees on the battlefield, then by God, one of your women could rise from the ashes of humiliation to write more powerfully than the enemy and all the historians and novelists who sang the praises of the Union.”
Since I am not a Southerner, Gone with the Wind affected me differently than those grew up in the aftermath of that time period. I realized while reading Conroy’s impassioned words, for someone who grew up in the South the book takes on a whole new meaning and significance. For the first time, I realized how seeped in history the South still is and how recent the civil war still feels to families who are descended from those soldiers. This chapter was a love song to his mother and Scarlett O’Hara. It was touching and inspiring in its sheer intensity.
“This book demonstrates again and again that there is no passion more rewarding than reading itself, that it remains the best way to dream and to feel the sheer carnal joy of being fully and openly alive.”
And man, can Conroy can write a sentence. He can weave words with the best of them and make you feel insignificant with his prose. His writing is, and this is stating it lightly, passionate. He states how he feels with every adjective he thinks is necessary and (at least in my opinion) it works for him. Some writers seem to use adjectives as afterthoughts. They read like extra adornments to their sentences that don’t fit, as if they’re just trying to fill up space. Conroy has an elegant love affair with adjectives that puts most writers to shame. He is so blatant in his adoration of words, that it refreshes me to read such unabashed expression, such freedom.
In My Reading Life, Conroy also invites us to relive memories of his favorite teacher, his father, bookstores that have been a part of his daily travels, his education, meeting an author for the first time and how he truly began to write. We see his growth from a boy who loves books to a man who writes them. And like any obsessed bibliophile, he also touches on his love of the words themselves.
“In literary criticism my eye has fallen on such gelatinous piles as “antonomasia,” “litotes,” or “enallage.” I’ve no idea what those words mean nor how to pronounce them nor any desire to look them up. But whenever I read I’ll encounter forgotten words that come back to me like old friends who’ve returned from long voyages to bring me news of the world.”
My Reading Life is a humorous and moving collection. Anyone who has experienced firsthand the power of stories to shape our lives will enjoy it. It made me laugh and cry at many different points, which I appreciated a lot. I felt that it touched on the light as well as the dark of Conroy’s life. Often books about books are just a bunch of lighthearted anecdotes, which is great, but there is nothing wrong with a little sadness to balance out the laughter. I feel it makes My Reading Life all that much stronger.
My Reading Life ended with Conroy writing about visiting one of my all time favorite authors, Jonathan Carroll. The story of their meeting mirrors Carroll’s writing style, it sounds like a moment one of his characters would have in one of his books.
He exuded a serenity and a seriousness that I lack. But he kept his eye on a woman at the next bridge. She was moving so slowly I thought she might be leading a dogsled pulled by escargots. After an hour, the woman walked in front of us, and she bowed her head in acknowledgment of Jonathan. With great dignity, he returned the gesture. To my surprise, she was walking two enormous tortoises, displaced natives from an Ethiopian desert. The woman walked them every night, and Jonathan was always there to admire their passage.
“Thats what writers do, Conroy,” he said. “We wait for the tortoises to come. We wait for that lady who walks them. That’s how art works. It’s never a jackrabbit, or a racehorse. It’s the tortoises that hold all the secrets. We’ve got to be patient enough to wait for them.”
This probably guaranteed my love of Conroy forever. There is no way he could have ended this book that would speak more to me personally. So what can I say? I may be hopelessly devoted from now on.