During Pat Conroy’s sophomore year in high school, a charismatic English teacher told him that he should read 200 pages a day. “I thought he was serious!” Conroy says, laughing, during a call to his home in Beaufort, South Carolina. “So I did that, and I’ve tried to keep it up. Sometimes I don’t make it, but usually I do. Usually I go beyond that.”
As if that’s not enough, Conroy also usually tries to complete five pages of new work handwritten on a yellow legal pad each day. On a good day he’ll put those pages on the steps leading up to the office of his third wife, novelist Cassandra King. She’ll leave her pages on a pillow near where he reads after dinner, while she goes back upstairs to work.
“Sandra’s the first wife I’ve had who has not complained that I have too many books. We have books in almost every room,” Conroy says, turning away from the phone for a moment to confirm that with Cassandra, who says, “Everywhere!”
“These books mean a lot to me,” Conroy continues. “I love them. I like to handle them. I can look up from my desk and see walls and walls and walls of books. It’s an extraordinary beauty for me.”
Conroy’s love of books is the subject of his beautiful, passionate and often funny new memoir, My Reading Life. The new book’s title, however, is just a tad misleading. Readers will quickly discover that for Conroy there is no real separation of his reading life from his writing life. Or of his reading/writing life from his lived life, for that matter.
In My Reading Life, Conroy forcefully advocates the pleasures of reading books as different as Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel; he pays eloquent tribute to reading mentors like his long-suffering mother, Peg Conroy, high school teacher and friend, Gene Norris, and the writer and teacher James Dickey; and with remarkable—even courageous—openness, he reports his insecurities and charts the sometimes harrowing emotional and intellectual path that has made him the writer and person that he is.
“One of the things I can’t do is not expose myself,” Conroy says. “Some people do not like that about my writing, but I can’t help it. I write with emotion and I write with passion. I’ve caused such pain in my life with these stupid books. . . . My father [a Marine fighter pilot] went nuts when The Great Santini came out. My teammates in My Losing Season were absolutely horrified when I was writing that book. And my college [The Citadel] went nuts when The Lords of Discipline came out. But I’ve gotten used to that, I think.”
In My Reading Life, Conroy sometimes shines a bright, critical light on himself, but he is usually generous and wide-ranging in his enthusiasms for other writers. He may not like the company of writers (“I stay away from other writers if I can. They eat their dead.”), but he sure likes their work. “I can pick up a book and I can enjoy anything. I enjoy mysteries. I blurbed a romance novel. I end up reading a lot of people’s books because I still blurb. I like to always blurb first novelists because it’s hard to get blurbs then. I couldn’t get any when I was a first novelist, and I remember that.”
Conroy is also an avid reader of nonfiction. “I have an abiding interest in nature, so I like nature books. I’ll read a biography of anyone. What I like about modern biography is that they do the childhood. That’s the part I’m most interested in because usually you find some secret of what ignited them, what set them off.”
Conroy even offers appreciative words about books by writers who have personally offended him. In a chapter about attending his first writers’ conference, Conroy tells of looking forward to meeting Alice Walker because he likes her novel Meridian. Walker, however, rudely snubs him—apparently, a friend explains, because “she has a thing about Southern white men.”
But being Southern and, more importantly, being a Southern writer, is essential to Conroy’s sense of himself. “There’s something phony about my whole life. The reason I embrace being Southern, the reason it fills my heart with joy every time I’m called a Southern writer, is because I grew up feeling like I was nothing, like I had no home, had no place I could call my own. We didn’t own a house; the government gave us housing. We moved almost every year. I went to 11 schools in 12 years. When Dad was dying, he gave me a thing that shocked me because it showed that I’d moved 23 times from when I was born until I was 15. So when they call me a Southern writer, I am delighted because they are identifying me with a place.”
Still, Conroy says, Southern writing has changed appreciably since he began writing. “When I started out as a Southern writer, we were all boys. There’s been a fabulous influx of the girls, the daughters of Flannery O’Connor, the daughters of Eudora Welty. They have come roaring in and that’s been a great thing for Southern writing.” After his wife, he says, his favorite Southern writer is Janis Owens, who “has written three wonderful books” (My Brother Michael, Myra Sims and The Schooling of Claybird Catts).
In fact, Conroy regrets that his new book does not include a defense of another Southern woman writer, Harper Lee, who has recently taken flak in some quarters. “I wish I’d written about that,” Conroy says, “because in To Kill a Mockingbird she gave us —and by us, I mean white Southerners—models to live our lives by. I think that for people like Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, me and other Southern liberals, that book had a huge influence on us.”
Yet for all his delightful championing of other writers, Conroy remains insecure about his own work. “I’m always surprised when somebody likes what I write,” he says at the end of our conversation. “Someone told me they were visiting a writer’s house and he took them back and showed them his office and said, ‘Here’s where the magic happens.’ I roared with laughter when I heard that. I thought, my God, it must be nice to have that. But that gift was not given to me.”
Maybe not that gift—but as My Reading Life amply shows, Conroy has many other gifts to share with readers.