“I wrote to explain my own life to myself, stories are the vessels I use to interpret the world to myself.”
On Wednesday I was on the final stretch of road trip where I was shooting footage for a couple of clients when I pulled into Oskaloosa, Iowa. It’s become a favorite stop of mine while in Southern Iowa. An Oasis of sorts. Located between Des Moines and Iowa City it has a town square guarded by a statue of Chief Mahaska of the Iowa Tribe. Oskaloosa was once a wealthy coal mining town and much of its architecture reflects its 19th century prosperity.
In fact, when snow covers the town square in Oskaloosa and Christmas lights drape the surrounding trees for a moment one could think they were in Aspen, Colorado—minus the mountains, the celebrities, and the billionaires. But my favorite thing about Oskaloosa is The Book Vault—a three story bookstore in a converted historic bank building. It’s not only my favorite bookstore in Iowa, but on my top ten list in the United States. (A list that also happens to include the Explore Booksellers on Main St. in Aspen—a remnant of old Aspen.)
As I pulled into Oskaloosa I was listening to a radio interview with Laura Hillenbrad on her new book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival which sounds even more powerful than her book Seabiscuit. The Book Vault did not have any copies available of Unbroken, but I did pick up the audio version of Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life. (Bonus: Unabridged and read by the author.)
Listening to the first couple chapters made my remaining hours driving fly by. I learned that Conroy in his youth spent time in my hometown of Orlando, calling the small city in its pre-Disney days “a backwater city dimpled with lakes.” Conroy’s turning of a phrase is one of the things that makes his writing so enjoyable. He calls the book Gone with the Wind, “The Iliad with a southern accent” and “an anthem of defiance.”
Several of his novels have been made into movies: Conrack, The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline, The Prince of Tides, The Water is Wide. If you’re keeping track of great writers who were educated in Catholic schools, and who have struggled with alcohol and depression then you can add Conroy to your list. Mix in a dysfunctional family upbringing in general—specfically some serious father issues—and a lifelong daily habit of reading 200 pages a day and you have another powerful combination for storytelling.
My Reading Life was just published last week, so here are two quotes hot off the presses:
“My attraction to story is a ceaseless current that runs through the center of me. My inexhaustible ardor for reading seems connected to my hunger for storylines that show up in both books and in the great tumbling chaos of life.”
My Reading Life
“The most powerful words in English are ‘Tell me a story,’ words that are intimately related to the complexity of history, the origins of language, the continuity of the species, the taproot of our humanity, our singularity, and art itself. I was born into the century in which novels lost their stories, poems their rhymes, paintings their form, and music its beauty, but that does not mean I had to like that trend or go along with it. I fight against these movements with every book I write.”
My Reading Life
Van Gogh once said he’d be content with a Rembrandt painting and bread. I’m sure there are a few people out there that feel the same way about Conroy.
P.S. Does Oskaloosa, Iowa have a Hollywood connection? Of course. It’s the home of Musco Lighting which has won both an Academy Award and an Emmy Award. It provided lighting sytems for the movies Titanic, Road to Perdition, and Pearl Harbor. It’s also where film, TV and radio writer Bill S. Ballinger (Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Operation C.I.A.) was born in 1912. The town was mentioned in the short story What She Wore by Edna Febner (Show Boat, Giant).
The picture below which I took on Wendesday is not Oskaloosa, but the similar town of Albia about 30 miles away.