Tuesday, January 4, 2011


Over Christmas break, I read Pat Conroy's MY READING LIFE. I checked it out from the library, but I think it is one I am going to have to own. It is a book that is meant to be savored- read, reread, underlined, dogeared, copied, quoted.

Here a few of my favorite lines, so far, anyway:

I had witnessed with my own eyes that a poem could make a Colonel cry. Though it was not part of a lesson plan, it imparted a truth that left me spellbound. Great words, arranged with cunning and artistry, could change the perceived world for some readers. From the beginning, I’ve searched out those writers unafraid to stir up the emotions, who entrust me with their darkest passions, their most indestructible yearnings, and their most soul killing doubts. I trust the great novelists to teach me how to live, how to feel, how to love and hate. I trust them to show me the dangers I will encounter on the road as I stagger on my own troubled passage through a complicated life of books that try to teach me how to die. pp 10-11

I take it as an article of faith that the novels I’ve loved will live inside me forever. 11

Writing about a very special high school teacher

“Tell me a story,” he commanded and I did. Those were the last words he ever spoke to me and they formed an exquisite unimprovable epitaph for a man whose life was rich in the guidance of children not his own. He taught them a language that was fragrant with beauty, treacherous with loss, comfortable with madness and despair and a catchword for love itself. His students mourned Gene all over the world, wherever they found themselves. They were ecstatic to be part of the dance. 76

Slowly my students started displaying the confidence that comes from being smart. 79

I grew up a word haunted boy. I felt words inside me and stored them wondrous as pearls. I mouthed them and fingered them and rolled them around on my tongue. My mother filled my bedtime hour with poetry that rang like Sanctus bells as she praised the ineffable loveliness of the English language with her Georgia-scented voice. I found that hive of words beautiful beyond all conveyance. They clung to me and blistered my skin and made me happy to be alive in the land of crape myrtle, spot-tailed bass and eastern diamond backs. The precise naming of things served as my entryway into art. The whole world could be sounded out. I could arrange the whole world into a tear sheet of music composed of words as pretty as flutes or the tail feathers of peacocks.

From my earliest days, I felt compelled to form a unique relationship with the English language. I used words to fashion a world that made sense to me. p. 85

I could build a castle from the words I steal from books I cherish. 87

I’ve known dozens of writers who fear the pitfalls and fastnesses of the language they write in and the glossy mess of the humanity they describe. Yes, humanity is a mess and it takes the immensity of a coiled and supple language to do it justice. 88

Writing is the only way I have to explain my own life to myself. 88

At an early age, I had turned to reading as a way for the world to explain itself to me. p.111

Books are living things and their task lies in their vows of silence. You touch them as they quiver with a divine pleasure. You read them and they fall asleep to happy dreams for the next ten years. If you do them the favor of understanding them, of taking in their portions of grief and wisdom, then they settle down in contented wisdom in your heart. 111

I envied the way they (poets) could make language smoke and burn and give off a bright light of sanctuary. The great ones could fill what was empty in me. In the vast repository of language, the poets never shout at you when you pass them by. Theirs is a seductive, meditative art. They hand you a file to cut your way out from any seductive prison of misrule.

On my writing desk, I always keep the poets close by, and I reach for them when those silver, mountain-born creeks go dry or when exhaustion rearranges the furniture of my fear chambered heart. The poets force me back to the writing life, where the trek takes you into the interior, where the right word hides like an ivy-billed woodpecker in the branches of the highest pines. 141-142


Laura Lynn Benson said...

I bought this book for Dave for Christmas (audio version for his car rides and walks with Buddy). We should have a book club dinner together, the three of us :)

Laura Lynn Benson said...

...and here's one of my favorites:

The novel works because it possesses the inexpressible magic where the art of pure storytelling rises above its ancient use and succeeds in explaining to a whole nation how it came to be this way. There has never been a reader or a writer who could figure out why this happens to only a very few books. It involves all the eerie mysteries of enchantment itself, the untouchable wizardry that occurs when a story, in all its fragile elegance, speaks to the times in a clear, original voice and answers some strange hungers and demands of the Zeitgeist.
Pat Conroy in My Reading Life

Carol said...

I would love a book club dinner with the three of us!