On my bedside table is a stack of books, and at the top of the stack is Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life. It is rich, beautiful, and evocative. Just like a reading life should be.
In a series of essays, Conroy honors authors and librarians and poets and teachers and, most importantly, the books that shaped his life. Books do that.
The book is the memoir of a reader and it sparks reflection. My own reading life began with the musical tones of my mother’s joy-embracing “happily-ever-after” cadence, mingled with those of my father’s sonorous and sardonic “well-what-did-they-expect” wit.
“I Could Have Seen That One Coming” might have been the title of every story my father read or told to us: Well of COURSE the wolf rushed ahead to Red’s Granny’s house; and Hansel and Gretel were held hostage by a witch; and Tom Sawyer got to know the school master’s switch, and Wendy ended up tied to the pirates’ mast. What did you expect?
“See? I knew that would happen,” he would say with a mix of pathos and judgment.
When I was six, I was taken to the Dolly Madison Library to get my own library card. I was allowed to choose my own books. Books came in the mail no matter where we lived and one of my parents read to us almost every night.
School was another story. Reading meant work and workbooks. Or it meant reading aloud in a circle of small wooden chairs where a teacher nodded approvingly as we made the words on the page jump to life. Or it meant working our way through a box of color coded cards with passages and questions.
These days when I read that elementary schools have declined, I want to raise my hand and say, “Wait a minute… they weren’t so great back then. I was there.”
I had great English teachers in high school. We were given choice, time to read, and a place to explore and deepen our thinking about books with others. We were expected to think, discuss, and write intelligently. I made my way through classics, contemporary fiction, plays, and poetry. I read books I loved and books I didn’t.
Mixed in with all those authors was Pat Conroy. When I was a senior in high school, I read his teaching memoir, The Water is Wide. I loved it, but I had no idea that I would one day teach.
Now I have spent well over half my life inviting children to develop their own rich reading lives with intention and purpose… I guess I could have seen that one coming.