Pat Conroy and Larry McMurtry have this in common: I have never read a work of fiction by either of these notable novelists.
I have read, and greatly enjoyed, their non-fiction. McMurtry's biography of Crazy Horse is superb -- biography as narrative -- as is Conroy's My Losing Season.
I now add Conroy's My Reading Life to that list. Books on books, books about reading, are a special pleasure for any reader. Our need to read -- and it is a need -- is foreign to most people, they cannot come close to comprehending how reading is like oxygen, but Conroy knows.
My Reading Life is a celebration of reading, a joyous work in which Conroy pays tribute to his mother, another vociferous reader who believed that her son would one day be a Southern writer of note, and to a high school English teacher who played a deeply significant role in his development as a man and a writer.
Conroy celebrates those books and writers who were and are meaningful to him: War and Peace, James Dickey and Thomas Wolfe. He sometimes overwrites -- Conroy knows he is guilty of this authorial sin -- but his fellow readers forgive him this sin because we know that it is only an expression of joy that cannot, will not, be contained.
Conroy writes about how reading has shaped and influenced his work. And he shares, eloquently, what he seeks in a book:
"Now, when I pick up a book, the prayer that rises out of me is that it changes me utterly and that I am not the man who first selected that book from a well-stocked shelf. Here's what I love: when a great writer turns me into a Jew from Chicago, a lesbian out of South Carolina, or a black woman moving into a subway entrance in Harlem. Turn me into something else, writers of the world. Make me Muslim, heretic, hermaphrodite. Put me into a crusader's armor, a cardinal's vestments. Let me feel the pygmy's heartbeat, the queen's breast, the torturer's pleasure, the Nile's taste, or the nomad's thirst. Tell me everything I must know. Hold nothing back."
Above all, Conroy embraces the power of a story. He knows there are critics, even authors, who scorn of the emphasis on narrative. But for Conroy, and for me, "tell me a story" are among the most powerful words in the English language. They are words to conjure with, to fuel a dream, offer escape, to fill the lungs with fresh and vital air and the heart with hope.
"Reading and prayer are both acts of worship to me," Conroy writes. "Amen," Mr. Conroy. "Amen."