My friend Marcia often texts me book recommendations. Titles and photos of dust jackets pop up on my phone like surprise Christmas gifts. Some of them I’ve already read, a few are placed on my ever growing TBR list, and others are devoured as soon as the “ting” comes through my screen. Her latest, My Reading Life by Pat Conroy, had been sitting on my shelf for almost two years. I had revisited both Prince of Tides and Beach Music after Conroy’s death in 2016, and the dark family stories he covered made me step away from him for my mental health, so this little book sat unread.
My Reading Life is a series of essays on Conroy’s love of books and how they led him to his writing life. He wrote about the power of the written word and how books gave him the world, thanks to his well-read mother and a series of teachers who recognized the fire in this broken, scarred young man. He praised Gone With the Wind, War and Peace, The Lord of the Rings, the works of Thomas Wolfe, and hundreds of other novels that showed him glory and grace, beauty and destruction, retribution and forgiveness. Conroy haunted book stores, collecting works of Tolstoy, Hemingway, Shakespeare, and O’Connor. This southern writer acknowledged the poetry and prose of other authors inspired and saved him every day of his life.
My own reading life began as a young girl, curled up on the corner of our couch with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories of the West or Nancy Drew mysteries. My mother let me check out books without censor, never questioning the age appropriateness, and for that, I am grateful. Books were my window to the world beyond my little town. I danced with Russian aristocrats, farmed with Native Americans, and road steam engines across this country. I loved both steamy romance paperbacks and classic novels such as The Secret Garden and Little Women.
Books continue to give me comfort. They are my refuge, my sanctuary, my dreams. Conroy wrote, “Reading and prayer are both acts of worship to me.” Books have been my own personal church. I have found the divine in lines that still make me gasp in delight and recognition. Romeo's pre-dawn whisper to Juliet, “And I’ll still stay, to have thee still forget, Forgetting any other home but this,”or Huck’s struggle with his conscience when he spurts, “Alright then, I’ll go to hell,” or especially Dumbledore’s question to Snape, “After all this time?” and Snape replies, “Always.” These words are holy, filled with longing, love, regret, and pain. They are my warmth when the world gets too unhinged. Conroy wrote, “Some of us read to ratify our despair about the world; other chase to read because it offers one of the only safety nets where love and hope can find comfort.” I believe I find both in all the books I have read and the ones I have yet to open.
When we moved last spring I gave away hundreds of books, knowing we wouldn’t have room for them in our tiny new home. Some were donated to the library for their used book sale, a few were placed in Beth's Free Little Library, but most were given away to friends. I wanted to share these books, not hoard them away, with hope the readers would find their own little prayers tucked away in them. I have since purchased a few more books to place on my shelves. I will continue to lend out my favorites, not worrying about their return. Perhaps they’ll be passed on to another. Maybe someone else will embrace the words and find their own peace, their own magic. That, I hope, will be my legacy.
“Maybe this is why we read, and why in moments of darkness we return to books: to find words for what we already know.” - Alberto Manguel
“A book lying idle on a shelf is wasted ammunition. Like money, books must be kept in constant circulation…A book is not only a friend, it makes friend for you. When you have possessed a book with mind and spirit, you are enriched. But when you pass it on you are enriched threefold.” - Henry Miller, The Books in My Life