As you know if you've read any of my recent posts, I love book lists. And a book titled My Reading Life just has to mention a few books, right? And since Pat Conroy was one of my favorite authors until his horrible South of Broad came out, I just had to read this. (Ok, I actually listened to Pat read it in the audio version.) Happily, Pat is back as a favorite author with this wonderful little memoir. So much of this book spoke to me in ways so knowing and so intimate that I can't clearly put them into mere words. Much of what touched my soul was contained in the first chapter when Conroy pays well-deserved homage to his mother for the passion for literature she gave to him and to his poet-sister, Carol.
"My mother hungered for art, for illumination, for some path to lead her to a shining way to call her own." (. 15)
Conroy makes the intellectual life his mother created for herself and two of her seven children so real that I could smell the mustiness of the library books on those hot Southern days--especially the day of the painting. I tried so hard to be that type mom for my kids....but they did not take to it. They are, at best, reluctant readers although P had one excellent season as a true reader and may return to that past-time again. But it is just that to them--a way to fill time. It is never a passion, a consuming force as it is for me, or as it has been for Pat Conroy.
While I have two college degrees, Mrs. Peg Conroy, like so many in her generation, left college to get married. Leaving formal education did not dampen her ardor for learning. Instead, she found the library on the Marine base where they were stationed or in the town just outside it's gates and used it as her "university," pulling her children along with her.
"Since she did not attend college, she looked to librarians as her magic carpet into serious intellectual life." (p. 5)
"A library could show you everything if you knew where to look." (p. 14)
"To my mother, a library was a palace of desire masquerading in a wilderness of books." (p. 13)
I'd not be much of a librarian if I did not rejoice in those sentiments--those truths.
But it was this statement, more than any other, that made this book nearly a second umbilical cord for me:
"Peg Conroy used reading as a text of liberation, a way out of the sourceless labyrinth that devoured Southern girls like herself."
I could re-write this to read: I used reading as a text of liberation, a way out of the sourceless labyrinth that devoured rootless suburban girls like myself, locked into a cookie-cutter life in a cookie-cuter house with a family that broke the mold.
Like Conroy I grew up as a rootless "brat"--not military, but corporate. My Dad was transferred 4 times before I reached the fourth grade (which goes a long way to explaining why I never learned math). In my second kindergarten class I discovered the truth pretty quickly: I was a new kid and I didn't belong. And so it would be in every school thereafter. As a little child I made my life with my stuffed animals. Then I grew into the world of the doll house my grandfather built me or the Breyer horses my other grandfather helped me collect. Finally I outgrew that and made my world my record collection, my band instruments and my books. It was the books that really helped me survive always being on the outside looking in. Being from a sarcastic home with a mentally-ill Dad and a mother trying to cope. Books helped me escape and find myself.
"I take it as an article of faith that the novels I've loved will live inside me forever." (p. 11)
The first book that consumed me was Gone With The Wind--it's probably why I cannot have a decent relationship with a decent man! I spent too much time at Tara on the porch with the Tarleton twins, or at Twelve Oaks fawning over Ashley all the while wishing a Rhett Butler would look at me. Instead I found myself at the movies with a poor relation of Charles Hamilton or eating at a chain restaurant with a long-lost cousin of Frank Kennedy. It was one of two books I took with me to Peace Corps. I can still recite the first paragraph by heart. I have the 50th Anniversary edition in the slipcase and keep 2 $2 bills to mark my favorite scenes.
Peg Conroy also loved Gone With the Wind and like me she re-read it over and over. I've read it so many times I can tell you who really minor characters are! I've watched the movie so many times I could perform it with sock puppets and be word perfect on the entire script. While I agree 100% that the book is seriously demeaning in it's portrayal of the slaves, I think it is too powerful a book to be dismissed out right for not being politically correct. As Conroy points out, it captures accurately the mood the passionate Confederates after the war--it is their story told thru their eyes. The only Americans ever to have a war in their own yards. It is about survival.
The other books he discusses, the teacher he idolizes, are beautifully written and stand alone as individual stories. But for me the book was really Chapter 1 about his mother and Chapter 2 about Gone With The Wind. I love Anna Karenina, too, but not with the passion that ceased me when I first lost myself in the red earth of Tara on that sunny Spring day in 1861.