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.
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.