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Conroy explores a life full of books

By Chris Sokoloski
Coastal Observer

While a cadet at The Citadel, Pat Conroy was driving back to Charleston from a basketball game in Myrtle Beach with his high school English teacher, Gene Norris.

Without telling him where they were going, Norris took a detour to Hampton Plantation and introduced Conroy to Archibald Rutledge, who at the time, was South Carolina’s poet laureate. Rutledge spoke kindly to the young man, even asking his opinion of his latest poem.

When Conroy and Norris left, the teacher told his pupil to always remember how Rutledge treated him, and if he was ever famous, to treat people, especially budding young writers, the same way.

That moment in Conroy's life is one of many he writes about in his latest book, "My Reading Life," an exploration of the people and books that have influenced him.

Conroy dedicates an entire chapter to Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind," which he calls "the last great posthumous victory of the Confederacy." It was the favorite book of his mother, Peg, who first read it to him when he was 5.

Conroy writes that whenever his mother would read the Mitchell classic aloud, it was with the same "reverential" voice she used when she read the Bible aloud. He credits his career to the book, writing that it caused his mother to raise him to be a "Southern novelist" and ponders what would have been if she had "spoon-fed" him William Faulkner or James Joyce.

It was his mother, Conroy writes, that encouraged his passion for reading when he was a child growing up with an abusive father, Marine Col. Don Conroy.

Conroy spends a lot of time discussing his childhood in the book, writing that while his father was turning him into a warrior, his mother was turning him into a wordsmith. His mother’s voice and his father's fists were the "bookends" of his childhood and form the basis of his art form.

Conroy detailed his abusive childhood in "The Great Santini" in 1976, which caused his paternal grandmother to vow never to speak to him again, a promise she kept. Conroy writes that he used to look at pictures of himself as a child and wonder why his father would want to "hit that little boy's face." He was also convinced that his father would kill him one day. "I do not remember a time when I was not afraid of my father's hands," Conroy writes. "I used to pray that America would go to war."

Many people might be surprised to learn that although Don Conroy swore to his dying day that his son "exaggerated the terror of his childhood," father and son eventually reconciled, and Conroy is now writing a book about his father, tentatively titled "The Death of Santini."

"My Reading Life" also includes anecdotes about celebrities Conroy encountered before he was famous, including Ted Williams, who his father served with during the Korean War; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who Conroy heard speak while still in high school; and Michael Jackson, who came into the Atlanta bookstore owned by a friend of Conroy, looking to buy books on "freaks."

Conroy, 65, lives on Fripp Island with his wife, Cassandra King, who is also a successful novelist. He spends time in "My Reading Life" discussing words.

"I've never met a word I was afraid of, just ones that left me indifferent or that I knew I wouldn't ever put to use. Sanction, outlaw, suburbia, lamentations, corolla, debris .... I can shake that fistful of words and jump-start a sentence that could send me on my way toward a new book."

As deep as is his passion for writing — he says in the book it is "a calling not a choice" and "the only way I have to explain myself" — it is matched by his love for reading.

A voracious reader whose collection of books numbers in the thousands, Conroy calls reading an act of "worship." "I learned how to be a man through the reading of great books."

When he picks up a book to read he asks one thing: "give me everything. Everything and don't leave out a single word." He writes that he still hunts for "fabulous books that will change me utterly. ... I want a book so filled with story and character that I read page after page without thinking of food and drink, because a writer has possessed me, crazed me with an unappeasble thirst to know what happens next."

And he offers advice to his brethren: "Writers of the world, if you've got a story, I want to hear it. I promise it will follow me to my last breath. My soul will dance with pleasure, and it'll change the quality of my waking hours. You will hearten me and brace me up for the hard days as I enter my life on the prowl. I reach for a story to save my life."

Conroy will be at Litchfield Books on Dec. 2 at 3 p.m. to sign copies of "My Reading Life." The price of the book is $25. There is no charge to have a copy signed.

If the book is purchased at the store before Dec. 2, the buyer will be assigned a specific time to come back and get in line.

More than 700 people came to Litchfield Books in 2002 when Conroy visited to sign "My Losing Season."

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