“I gather stories the way a sunburned entomologist admires his well-ordered bottles of Costa Rican beetles,” Pat Conroy writes in My Reading Life (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $25). “I am often called ‘a storyteller’ by flippant and unadmiring critics. I revel in the title.”
Conroy’s sheer exuberance for the English language sometimes does get the best of him. As a reader, you occasionally want to tell him to calm down, take a breath, rethink that metaphor. But then you come across a sentence that almost leaps off the page and takes flight, and you remember that you are in the hands of a master craftsman who happens to be a great storyteller. No offense intended.
Conroy, who turns sixty-five this month, was born in Atlanta, the eldest of seven children of a violent Marine and a beauty queen. His mother’s greatest gift was inspiring an almost desperate love of reading. He has dropped countless autobiographical breadcrumbs in his novels, but My Reading Life is Conroy’s most personal and introspective offering yet.
From his home on Fripp Island, South Carolina, Pat Conroy talked recently about books, technology, and time:
Why write a book about reading? I think it was my fear that reading is going to disappear. Before it does, I wanted to get down the immense pleasures—and life-changing qualities—of reading. I’m an old man now, and I’ve never written these things down. But I owe a great deal to the writers in my life who wrote books that I loved. I wanted to get some of that enthusiasm down in writing.
What would have happened to you if you hadn’t discovered books at such an early age? I honestly don’t know. I don’t think I would have been a writer. I don’t even know if I would have gone to college. I could have followed my mother’s example. She didn’t go to college, and she was so aware of that her entire life. That really hurt her and made her feel socially inferior. But nobody had read as much as Mom. I used to love hearing her drop the names of books and authors into conversations with officers’ wives. She found a way to pass.
You still write in longhand and haven’t really embraced e-mail. How do you feel about e-books? I don’t see where you can fight them very much. I had never actually seen one before, when a woman in Augusta, Georgia, came to a signing for South of Broad. She brings out a Kindle and shows me my book. She hit a button and there it was! I thought that was absolutely phenomenal. I did not know my book was even for sale on a Kindle. And bam, there it is. That seemed like a very good invention to me. You know, I’ve written books over 600 pages long. I can see that you would rather take an e-book onto a plane, a train or a ship. I can see that this is a very effective invention. It will not affect me. I will not ever read a book that way. But I know the end of an era when I see one.
How many books do you own in your personal library? Somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000.
If there were a fire and you could only save one book, what would it be? I would probably grab hold of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I love that book. I just went nuts when I first read it. I read the first line and I said to myself, “I don’t know how to [expletive] write!” I read it and just marveled. That book took me to Latin American literature. I bet I spent five years just reading Latin American writers.
What’s the most disappointing book you ever read? All of mine! I’ve never been able to take much satisfaction in any of my books. That may be part of the writer’s dilemma. It’s never as good as you want it to be.
You seem to be in a really prolific stage of your career. I am old. [Laughs.] It was a shock to me when people pointed out that it had been 14 years between Beach Music and South of Broad. I remember thinking, “What in the hell am I doing?”
So you decided to pick it up a little? I’m picking it up as fast as I can. I’ve got a book that’s coming out next year, too. The Death of Santini, a nonfiction book about my father, will probably be out in the fall of next year. I’m still doing the interviews at this point. I’ve got this one huge gap in my knowledge, and that is Dad’s Irish-Catholic Chicago boyhood.
How difficult will it be to write that one? You know, my brothers and sisters have all said to me, “Pat, how are you going to make anybody believe this stuff?” That is a problem. It’s hard enough to make people believe it when I put it in fiction.
How many books do you read in a typical year? In high school, I had this magnificent English teacher who suggested that if we wanted to be smart, we would read at least 200 pages a day. So I have tried to do that my whole life.
What have you read lately that you loved? I’ve got a million manuscripts from other writers. And one book I just read that I had not read before was Night Hurdling by James Dickey. I picked that up at a yard sale and I just finished that last night. I liked it a lot. Something else I read—or re-read—recently: The Three Musketeers. I think it was the power of suggestion. I had just watched that movie Slumdog Millionaire, where the last question was about the name of the third musketeer. I thought it was Aramis, and it turns out it was.
So you went back and read the whole book? I did. You know, many of the books I read as a kid, I can’t remember much about them. So it was like being introduced to the book all over again.