The Lord of the Rings
By J.R.R. Tolkien
"I love books about treks and journeys into the unknown," Conroy says—books like Tolkien's famous high-fantasy epic about a dark lord determined to conquer a magical land. "I was on a quest to be a writer that mattered, and a friend told me that I must read and remember everything. 'You cannot call yourself educated or literate,' he said, 'if you do not know the secrets of Middle-earth, if you have not trekked with the Hobbits.' I mark the time I spent reading these splendid books among the richest days of my life. They are like the elevation of the host to me, their presence transformed, their effect indelible and everlasting. What is the loss of a job or a bad review when you've followed Gandalf the Grey through the mines of Moria?"
Conroy's next pick: A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell
By Anthony Powell
"When Gene Norris, my former English teacher, was dying, I started this 12-volume opus. I had bought it years before but never gotten to it," Conroy says. "On the days that Gene went to chemotherapy, I'd read to him. Powell's magnificent books let us talk to each other about life and death and love."
Conroy's next pick: Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
By Margaret Mitchell
"This is a war novel, a historical romance, a comedy of manners, a bitter lamentation, a cry of the heart, and a long, coldhearted look at the character of a lovely, Machiavellian Southern woman," Conroy says. "It is beautifully constructed into fine, swiftly moving parts and 63 chapters. Mitchell possessed a playwright's ear for dialogue." First read to him by his beloved mother—who so admired the author she changed her middle name to Margaret in homage—the book is "operatic, biblical. The characters live, they breathe, you see 'em, you can touch 'em. That's what I always love in a book. I owe a personal debt to this novel. I became a novelist because of it. I think I learned about the relationship between books and life from Margaret Mitchell."
Conroy's next pick: Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe
Look Homeward, Angel
By Thomas Wolfe
This first novel by a fellow Southerner "took possession of me in a way no book has, before or since. I read it from cover to cover three straight times, transfigured by the mesmerizing hold of the narrator's voice as I took in and fed on the power of the long line," Conroy says. "It was the first time I realized that breathing and the written word were intimately connected." Conroy was so inspired that he immediately "became a ridiculous figure," trying for seven years to imitate his idol's style. "I wrote a piece for the school literary magazine that now makes me think: 'My God in heaven, this is just the worst drivel.'"
Conroy's next pick: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
By Italo Calvino
"Utterly magical," says Conroy about this 1972 novel by the late Italian author. "I first read Calvino's Baron in the Trees, and it utterly worked for me. Then I read this, and I think it's one of the greatest books I've ever read. Marco Polo has traveled to the realms of China to get to the court of Beijing. He is speaking to the emperor, trying to describe places to someone who has never seen and will never see them. He begins making up cities and stories. I thought the book was poetry: It has a looking-glass feel, a fun-house feel. I could not get enough of it. If you travel with Calvino's work any distance, if you just go with it, when you're done, you feel like you've been living inside a poem."
And making a difference to us: Pat Conroy's My Reading Life
Books That Made a Difference to...