Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Reading ("My Reading Life" by Pat Conroy)

I had never read a single word written by Pat Conroy when, on March 18 of this year, I checked out the audiobook of his memoir, My Reading Life, from a local library. That Conroy had passed away only two weeks earlier was entirely coincidental; my library's selection of audiobooks leans heavily toward forgettable thrillers, and Conroy's was one of the few works of nonfiction available. What's more, it fit the one requirement I have concerning audiobooks:  it must be read by the author. While most readers are adamant that writers do not make good narrators, preferring instead to hear a professional like Jim Dale or Simon Vance, I've never adapted to this way of thinking. For whatever reason, I cannot tolerate a voice that is tempered by perfection or sounds overly rehearsed--one that, for lack of a better analogy, evokes a pompous actor taking his lines far too seriously. I can listen to a minute, maybe two, before I need to turn off the book and regain my composure.

With authors, you are greeted almost instantly by flaws--mispronunciations, slurred dialects, inconsistent pitch, a complete unfamiliarity with proper pacing--but also the life behind each word. An author understands their book in ways a professional narrator never can, even with notes and some gentle tutoring, and most read their books as though piecing together a past self one syllable at a time. David McCullough is better than almost anyone else at this:  his voice is that of a learned sage come to read you a bedtime story wrought from the bones of history. Even when his voice is wracked with the strains of age or illness--his reading of The Wright Brothers is beautiful in its unexpected and unavoidable frailty--he holds you enraptured. The same applies to other writers--Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Bill Bryson, Douglas Adams, Seamus Heaney, Jon Ronson--who infuse their own work with an electricity begotten from something more than just paper and ink.*

This is the charm of Pat Conroy. A Georgia-born Army brat, Conroy's voice is a heavy drawl that welcomes you with open arms while also inviting stereotypical images of the simple Southerner. The former is Conroy's gift; the latter is the readers' shame. With little hesitation, Conroy recounts--in vivid, immaculate prose--the books that have shaped him as a writer and as a man. The novels he holds up as integral to his development--Gone With the Wind, War and Peace, Deliverance, Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Rings--are like characters all their own, albeit carved from granite and propelled into his life like a celestial body breaking through the atmosphere. And standing behind each book is a man or woman to whom Conroy offers even greater praise:  his mother, a high school English teacher, an uncompromising bookseller, the owner of an Atlanta bookstore, James Dickey himself.

Which is perhaps the greater truth as Pat Conroy sees it. A book can change your life, but never on its own; it must be sewn into the very fabric of your being like a seed driven into the soil in order to fulfill its promise. There is not a single book mentioned in Conroy's memoir that did not have its genesis in another person, and for eight hours--350 pages--Conroy traces the roots of each until we have a full picture of the man now reading to us in his slow, steady drawl. To listen to My Reading Life as an audiobook is to take an extended road trip with someone whose entire life has prepared him for one book recommendation after another. Conroy is a wonderful companion, even as you fight away the awareness that the emptiness beside you is twofold:  behind the narration, there is no longer a flesh-and-body man steadying himself against the spinning world. Instead, we have a voice that pushes us forward in much the same way he was pushed forward by his family, friends, and teachers...a voice telling us to take up a book in our hands and demand from it the secrets to living a good life.

*There are a handful of actors who can have the same affect. Perhaps the most noteworthy is Sissy Spacek, whose reading of To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most honest narrations I've ever heard. Gentle and unassuming, forceful and indignant, she becomes a grown-up Scout Finch regaling us with stories of Maycomb from the comfort of a porch-swing.