This morning, I read the final pages of Pat Conroy’s The Water is Wide. This is the first of his two autobiographical books, chronicling the turbulent, heart-finding, mean-ending year he spent as the first white teacher on Daufuskie Island (called Yamacraw in the book), off the South Carolina coast near Beaufort in the late 60’s. This is not a review of the book, as I would probably not give it all it deserves. It, like all his – my favorite author – works is simply impeccable.
No, this is about the experience of finishing the reading of a great book. That moment of exquisite sadness that you see coming a few pages from the end, that you race toward, yet often reread to try somehow to extend the exhilaration you’re feeling just then. You’re suddenly aware that you have a satisfied smile on your face. You can feel that you’ve learned something, more often than not, about yourself. You feel a little proud of yourself that you were smart enough to choose this book, and clever enough to grasp its meanings. Smug intelligencia that we are.
You roll the words and chapters around on your tongue, savoring their rich sequence and construction. The moments of surprise, those of justice celebrated, of injustice overpowered. Passions loosed, for good and bad. Love won. Love shattered. Like Elvis, you can’t help falling in love with a character or two. And despising the hateful SOB’s always lurking on the pages.
Stories that teach me about a particular part of the country, or period in history, of formation of a movement, or terrible time for some group of us…these I especially love. When you finish one of these, you know something you didn’t before. You’re better equipped to pass that 10th grade history test you hated. And we all know how much more fascinating you’ll be at the next social gathering. “Did you all realize that back in….”
You know the book did its job, and then some, when, after reading that last word, you read the Author’s Acknowledgments, trying to wrest some final insight, some revelation of inspiration from the author’s words, some ah-ha about who set him up to be successful with this work that you’ve consumed. That’s what I did this morning. I read every word of that section, because there was nothing else left to read. But, joy of joys, delivered to my door this week from Amazon, was my copy of Conroy’s first new novel in 14 years. Hot dang!
So, as you select the appropriate spot on just the right shelf of your bookcase that houses only your favorite reads, on which to place your latest trophy, your most recent encasement of brilliance, your mind is already racing through the possibilities for that next choice. What adventure to embark on? What knowledge to acquire? What theme? What part of history? What kind of characters? All these delicious choices to make. Well, whatever it is, make it a great book. Let’s agree to never spend time with books you can’t remember three days after you finish them. Read books that you’re proud to have read. Books whose author amazes you and takes you through your mind and into your very soul. Books whose last words invoke that last dreaded, thrilling, bitter pleasure.