Pat Conroy's My Reading Life is an honest memoir, as memoirs go, 333 pages in a small, handsome volume. Last year I also read his memoir, My Losing Season, perhaps the best basketball book I've ever read.
In My Reading Life, Conroy tells of his early foibles, such as his imitation of Thomas Wolfe's writing style which in his own hands became cartoonish--somethng that is painful for him to look back upon.
Conroy says that one of his heroes was James Dickey: "In 1970 his novel Deliverance was published. I found it to be 278 pages that approached perfection. Every sentence sounded marvelous, distinct, and original, and it flowed as quickly as the river it celebrated. Its tightness of construction and assuredness of style reminded me of The Great Gatsby.
"Like his poetry, no line went in for showiness, no hint of laziness or inattention or loss of control. For me, Dickey had forged a palace of light for a white-water of words."
Conroy says that, intoxicated with those words, he did a lot of crazy things. He attempted white-watering himself, with humorous results, then he enrolled in James Dickey's course in modern poetry at Columbia and joined his poetry-writing workshop. Dickey became his teacher.
"I had stumbled into Dickey's life at the most illuminating and perilous of times. James Dickey was becoming a celebrity, and I think it would partially ruin his life. That year, he talked often of Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight and the filming of Deliverance. I got to watch James Dickey fall in love with being James Dickey, and I believe this helped me as much as anything he taught me."
"The young women in the class were lovely and fresh and sometimes dazzling. These pretty girls would stare at Dickey with Casablanca eyes, the gorgeous eyes of Ingrid Bergman saying good-bye to Humphrey Bogart at the airport. It also occurred to me that those young women could offer Mr. Dickey a gift that I wasn't about to offer him, even if he was interested in accepting it."
"When visiting writers from other colleges came that year, I noticed a lot of sixty-year-old male writers married to twenty-year-old girls and...James Dickey walked into a cathedral of worshipers whenever he came to class."
Authors, being human, often have difficulty with the cult of celebrity. When Oprah asked Cormac McCarthy why he had always avoided interviews and award ceremonies, he said that he didn't think such things would be good for his head.
Pat Conroy's memoir includes much more of his reading life, of course. It is a detailing of those works which inspired Conroy to become a professional author--Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind, Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel, and J. R. R. Tokien's Lord of the Rings, among many others--and in doing so, he tells much of his life's story. He says,
"Often at night I find myself drifting through my library of thousands of books and feel the lamps of wisdom light up the candelabras of my city of books. Deep within me, I've constructed elaborate museums and labyrinths from those writers whose complete works I have read over the years."