Readings: A Great Book is Like the Eucharist

I don’t read on the beach. The beach is for long walks and quick plunges into the surf.

I am at Sea Bright, the northernmost town on the Jersey Shore, for two weeks, and I brought Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life with me, perfect company as I sit in the front room or on the balcony overlooking the Atlantic.

Advertisement

Pat and I never met; but, since I spent lifetime trying to get high school and college students to read good and great books, we are kindred spirits. Son of a tough, cold, and distant marine fighter pilot who inspired The Great Santini, Pat Conroy moved around from one military base to another, through 11 schools in 12 years. But he was blessed with at least two high school teachers who inspired him to read. The result has been ten books, including many best-sellers made into films. This latest is a beautiful tribute to his teachers and an introduction to the intertwined arts of reading and writing which every student and teacher—and every adult who, in the evening of life, senses an interior emptiness because of something he or she has not read—should study.

As a teen, Pat went in search of a teacher who could replace his brutal father: “I wanted to attach my own moon of solitude to the strong attraction of a good man’s gravitational pull.” He found him in Gene Norris’s English class in 1961. Norris took him to visit a famous poet whose kindness was meant to teach Pat how to deal generously with young writers who would come to him for guidance when he too became famous. Norris gave him a copy of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel for Christmas, then drove him to the boarding house in Asheville where Wolfe had grown up and written about it in the novel. The teacher grabbed an apple from a tree from which Wolfe himself had plucked the fruit and commanded young Pat to eat it. “Selecting his words with care,” he said, “It’s high time, boy, that you learned that there is a relationship between life and art.”

As he shuttled from school to school young Conroy also picked up a Catholic education. The church gave him a language “whose comfort zone included both sweetness and majesty.” A welcome to exotic words like “liturgy,” “offertory,” “lavabo” and “moveable feast.” His most beautiful metaphor: “The great books are like the elevation of the host to me, their presence transformed, their effect indelible and everlasting.”

But rootless, he says he grew up, one of seven children, knowing nothing well, least of all himself. He did not know whether he was smart of stupid, handsome or ugly, interesting or insipid. Yet thanks to Wolfe, who “tries to tell you the things that none of us are supposed to know,” he knew he wanted to write. His parents divorced. He went to Paris to write and learned courage by throwing himself on top of a deranged homeless man who had set himself on fire. He tasted success, married, divorced, married again. A rich life indeed. But the climax of the memoir is his reflection on Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which he has read three times, at different stages in his life.

His Gonzaga High School English teacher, Joseph Monte, had given the class a list of the 100 books they should read before going to college. Pat worked through David Copperfield, The Peloponnesian War, The Sound and the Fury and Crime and Punishment; but buying War and Peace was “as though I had taken my first step on a newly discovered continent.” That continent becomes Russia as Napoleon, in a foolish decision Hitler will duplicate, marches toward Moscow to make all of Europe his own. Meanwhile Count Tolstoy has made the reader prisoner for more than 1300 pages that will change the reader’s life. A graduate of the Citadel, Conroy says every army officer with ambition should read this novel— s should every national leader who might send his troops into a war. He warns that “no man knows the forces that may be set loose when an army enters the homeland of a proud enemy whose people speak a different language, dance to a different music, worship a sterner god, and to not take well to an invasion of the motherland by an arrogant enemy.”

 I first read War and Peace as an artillery lieutenant in Germany in 1956. It is time to read it again.

 Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.

 

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 3 months ago
Wow.  You can't tell me that artists and saints are not on the same road!  Thanks for this wonderful synopsis of Pat Conroy.  Enjoy the ocean!
Rick Malloy
7 years 3 months ago
Great post Ray. Thanks for placing Conroy and Tolstoy together.

Over the years, I've read all of Pat Conroy's novels.  From The Water is Wide to South of Broad, he's chronicled his life and times and let us into his world(s).  Along the way, he's struggled courageously with his demons and survived.  His writing doesn't get the recogniton it merits, most likely because too many consider books that are popular less literary.  Prince of Tides is a great novel.  His memoir of his college basketball carrer at the Citadel, My Losing Season, is well worth reading also.  It tells a remarkable tale of _________ (don't want to give it away) for his family and his father.  But read the Great Santini first

While taking John Dear's parish in Northern New Mexico one summer, I read War and Peace.  I set a goal for myself of 50 pages a day and the opus rolled along like five novels by Dickens.  You wander in Tolstoy's parallel universe for 30 days, a bit like St. Ignatius' Spiritual ExercisesWar and Peace is a great book, and at times like these you get to share that you read the whole thing.  Someday I'll work through the whole Lord of the Rings.
Bill Collier
7 years 3 months ago
Fr. Malloy-

I blame the Jesuit scholastic who taught me high school sophomore English for introducing me to LOTR and triggering a life-long enjoyment of the books. (That was long enough ago that my high school teacher could be the Superior General of the Society of Jesus by now.) If you ever do decide to wade into the complete universe created by Tolkien, you might want to have at your side a copy of Robert Foster's "The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth," a remarkable A to Z compendium in and of itself.

I enjoy Pat Conroy, too, so I look forward to reading his new book.
7 years 3 months ago
A friend recommended "My Reading Life",  early this year.  I couldn't put it down.  I
think I finished it in three days!!!  After that I read four more of his books:  The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline, South of Broad, and the Prince  of Tides.  All were very enjoyable. 

Advertisement

The latest from america

 Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, then nuncio to the United States, and then-Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, are seen in a combination photo during the beatification Mass of Blessed Miriam Teresa Demjanovich at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, N.J., Oct. 4, 2014. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
In this third letter Archbishop Viganò no longer insists, as he did so forcefully in his first letter, that the restrictions that he claimed Benedict XVI had imposed on Archbishop McCarrick—one he alleges that Pope Francis later lifted—can be understood as “sanctions.”
Gerard O’ConnellOctober 19, 2018
Kevin Clarke tells us about his reporting from Iraq.
Olga SeguraOctober 19, 2018
For U.S. Catholics, every synod is also a valuable reminder—and corrective—that it is not all about us.
The EditorsOctober 19, 2018
For decades, the U.S. church has gifted its public servants with the social teachings and magisterium of the church.
Christopher Jolly HaleOctober 19, 2018