I love books about books. I picked this one up off the New Books shelf at the library for just that reason. I’ve read some of Pat Conroy’s books and enjoyed them although he’s not one of my favorite authors. Still, this looked interesting and like a nice light read.
I was incredibly pleasantly surprised. This was a fabulous book, one of the best in the books about books genre that I’ve read. The first layer is a memoir of sorts, however, if you’ve read anything else by or about him the personal stories he mentions here won’t be new to you. In the second layer he talks about books that have been important to him, usually weaving the discussion of the books in with his life stories. For example, he pairs a discussion of Gone With the Wind with stories about his mother, a Southern lady who claimed it as her favorite book. In the third layer he reflects on the intellectual life and why books (both the reading and writing of them) are important.
A novel is a great act of passion and intellect, carpentry and largesse. From the very beginning, I wrote to explain my own life to myself, and I invited readers who chose to make the journey with me to join me on the high wire….I do not record the world exactly as it comes to me but transform it by making it pass through a prism of fabulous stories I have collected on the way. I gather stories the way a sunburned entomologist admires his well-ordered bottles of Costa Rican beetles. Stories are the vessels I use to interpret the world to myself. I am often called a “storyteller” by flippant and admiring critics. I revel in the title.
Many modern writers abjure the power of stories in their work, banish them to the suburb of literature, drive them out toward the lower pastures of the lesser moons, and they could not be more wrong in doing so…..The writers who scoff at the idea of primacy of stories either are idiots or cannot write them….The most powerful words in the English are “tell me a story” words that are intimately related to the complexity of history, the origins of literature, the continuity of the species, the taproot of our humanity, our singularity, and art itself….
Good writing is the hardest form of thinking. It involves the agony of turning profoundly difficult thoughts into lucid form, then forcing them into the tight-fitting uniform of language, making them visible and clear. If the writing is good, then the effort seems effortless and inevitable. But when you want to say something life-changing or ineffable in a single sentence, you face both the limitations of the sentence itself and the extent of your own talent.
I think the best thing I can say about this book is that it made me want to read more. More of Conroy. But also more of Tolstoy and Dickens. More of Thomas Wolfe and James Dickey. More of Margaret Mitchell and more poetry.
I have a feeling that Conroy would approve of that.