Bestselling author Pat Conroy acknowledges the books that have shaped him and celebrates the profound effect reading has had on his life.

Pat Conroy, the beloved American storyteller, is a voracious reader. Starting as a childhood passion that bloomed into a life-long companion, reading has been Conroy’s portal to the world, both to the farthest corners of the globe and to the deepest chambers of the human soul. His interests range widely, from Milton to Tolkien, Philip Roth to Thucydides, encompassing poetry, history, philosophy, and any mesmerizing tale of his native South. He has for years kept notebooks in which he records words and expressions, over time creating a vast reservoir of playful turns of phrase, dazzling flashes of description, and snippets of delightful sound, all just for his love of language. But for Conroy reading is not simply a pleasure to be enjoyed in off-hours or a source of inspiration for his own writing. It would hardly be an exaggeration to claim that reading has saved his life, and if not his life then surely his sanity.

I fell in love with this book about books – it wasn’t perfect, but it came as close as I’ve found to explaining a deep love of all that is books and reading, shooting at it from different directions. Pat Conroy may be wordy, but he writes beautifully and clearly loves books, shaping his life around them. And he does it in nifty ways – influences on him people-wise, place wise, life wise, and books themselves.

In order it starts with his childhood, and what a fascinating perspective that was for a booklover. His southern upbringing would clearly influence what kind of writer he’d later become, but I had no idea how much credit was owed to his mother, someone he devotes several chapters and points to. She was fascinated with reading books of all sizes and genres, making it clear to the children how important the literary world was, how enriching. Hard not to be hooked when he’s starting by gushing about his mother and her love of books.

“Since she did not attend college, she looked to librarians as her magic carpet into a serious intellectual life. Books contained powerful amulets that could lead to paths of certain wisdom. Novels taught her everything she needed to know about the mysteries and uncertainties of being human."

The second chapter is entirely devoted to that epic book, Gone with The Wind, showing how it was his mother's favorite and how she modeled her life from it. It was such an important, revered book in their house that his mother encouraged him, if he should become a published writer, to use the voice of the south. Maybe the longest book review I have read on it, ending with it intertwined with his life and future. I’ve rarely seen someone credit so much influence to one book.

The third chapter, longer than the others, shows the other person in his life who helped form him, an important teacher who would pick him up from home month for trips, who took kids for their driving license tests, who stood before the school board to save his job from encouraging "The Catcher in the Rye!" His stories were potent reminders of how important a role teachers can play, and I loved every word of it. Heartfelt and intimate, the teacher became a beloved character that I was fascinated by as Conroy covers his life and influence. A hero of books.

Charles Dickens and Daufuskie Island was short and sweet, speaking of a play he participated in with an undernourished group of black children. It’s interesting because it shows the limited of mentality of schools and how he came to be removed as a potential helper to the children and delivering literature/love of reading to them. Such a shame.

The Librarian is no wonderful story of a typical librarian in the way we typically view them – authors and readers hold charming memories of people want to help foster a love of reading. This woman was the opposite. Anyway, he believed racism cost him the job of trying to be a teacher to the children, which I’m sure has happened to a lot of people. The politics with the librarian and misconceptions was hard to stop reading about, as unpleasant as the reality is.

I take it as an article of faith that the novels I've loved will live inside me forever.
‘The Old New York Book Shop’ was a fascinating chapter. From the magic of the bookstore with how it positioned itself into his life, to the developing friendship with the owner, to the stories of the quirky, relative customers. The stories were a lot of fun, while holding insightful validity.

It cuts views and answers a question I had – was his family threatened by models of them being in his books? Did they find the written dysfunction insulting? Apparently with the book The Great Santini, it not only helped shatter his marriage as he lost himself in writing it, but permanently cut his grandmother out of his life and drew threats from other relatives. Reactions from his father weren’t pretty either.

“My mother's voice and my father's fists are two bookends of my childhood, and they form the basis of my art.”

The rest of the book covers everything from traveling in Paris to help his writing and the people he encounters there with cultural difference (interesting), his experiences with his book rep and promotion (another viewpoint that was cool to read about with books), his experience at his first writing conference with its beneficial – and disappointing – results, his admiration for Thomas Wolfe, another teacher he respected in college life, his adoration with words, and just about everything else you can think of.

It’s hard to figure my favorite section, but I have to keep returning to the magic of that Old New York Book Shop and the bookseller there. He spent years in the walls of that place with colorful stories and adventures. Conroy tells about the bookseller and his life and all the changes with it, the future parties held there, other author experiences as it grew, and it’s eventual (sad and nostalgic) closure.

On the negative side, some of its wordy and this book is part memoir (that itself is okay). Sometimes there’s a little rambling, but his love of words is evident and I absolutely loved and cherish this book. Great stuff for anyone who wants to dive into another book lover’s mind and see how they were affected by stories and the layered experiences of reading.

Highly recommended!

   Book Quotes:

“Even today, I hunt for the fabulous books that will change me utterly. I find myself happiest in the middle of a book which I forget that I am reading, but am instead immersed in a made-up life lived at the highest pitch.”

"Books are living things and their task lies in their vows of silence. You touch them as they quiver with a divine pleasure. You read them and they fall asleep to happy dreams for the next 10 years. If you do them the favor of understanding them, of taking in their portions of grief and wisdom, then they settle down in contented residence in your heart.”

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