Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me
Karen Swallow Prior
T. S. Poetry Press, 2012
220 pp., $14.95
"Modernity is eighth grade stuck on repeat," Karen Swallow Prior humorously muses in her recently released memoir of literature-loving. The unexpected turn-of-phrase—and the chapter revolving around Jane Eyre from which it comes—is, in a way, representative of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, for it alludes both to the angst of becoming a self-possessed individual and to the desire for loving acceptance that the development calls for. The story of Prior's life, not unlike Jane Eyre's generally speaking, is about the sometimes painstaking, sometimes joyous process of individuation. Of course, the rise of the modern individual in the novel is coincident with the uniquely modern emphasis on self-creation. Yet, Prior's comparison of modernity to eighth grade also reveals that she knows something of the alienating condition which can accompany the illusion of total self-sufficiency in the creation of the self. In a way, Booked offers a counter-narrative about how the self is formed, one that is rooted in sensibilities which predate modernity (and self-help books). A story about how books have been a means of grace to Prior's soul, Booked is, more than that, a story about the inextricable relationship between narratives and human beings.
Prior, who is Chair of the Department of English and Modern Languages at Liberty University, organizes her memoir such that each chapter brings a classic work of literature into correspondence with a particular stage of her life. In a twist on the adage "being is becoming," she titles the Jane Eyre chapter "Beholding is Becoming." Borrowed from Marshall McLuhan, the chapter title suggests the kind of self-formation that Prior has undergone and is eager to share: "[S]o much of our becoming comes not from within but from without, from the relations others give us about ourselves, from beholding ourselves in the mirror held up in the world around us." Each chapter is an invitation to see what beholding has wrought in Prior's life—to see how characters, both within books and without, have taught her, and to see how authors, both human and the Divine, have shaped her. A "promiscuous reader" in the Miltonian sense, Prior has primarily sat under the tutelage of books.
In an early chapter, "The Life-Giving Power of Words: Charlotte's Web," we get a sense of how Prior weaves the tale of herself that she's telling. Recounting a significant moment from the 1950s children's novel, Prior notes,
As [Charlotte] weaves words about Wilbur into her web, Wilbur tries to live up to the meaning of the words. 'Some pig,' she proclaims. 'Terrific,' she writes. And as if by magic, Charlotte's serendipitously chosen words create in everyone who comes to see Wilbur, and even in Wilbur himself, a sense of being, in fact, 'some pig,' and a pretty 'terrific' one, too.
Prior remembers the time she overheard her mother telling someone that "Karen's very perceptive." She notes the distinguishing power this label had on her as a young girl—how it helped her to "be the thing" her mother "saw and named" in her. What Prior calls "this magnificent naming power" is one significant example of how words have had the power to shape and mold her even from an early age.
Or consider a later chapter, "Sex, Symbol, and Satire: Gulliver's Travels," which reflects on the power of symbols to impart truth or falsehood. Prior discusses the importance of a community to help provide wisdom about a symbol's meaning. She recalls a time in her youth when she had established her own haphazard standard for who would make an ideal man to love. This standard was one in which she would wait for sex until she found her true love. But how would she recognize "true love" when she encountered it? Looking back, she sees that she failed to take into account the reality of "the other." She sees this as Gulliver's "essential failure" throughout his travels: his inability to recognize the fallibility of his own perspective in discerning true and false representations. Absent this recognition, Gulliver is affected by his travels in a way that renders him an isolated misanthrope who rejects the communion—with its symbols of table, bread, and cup—of his family. And, at times, Prior's devotion to her own flawed perspective had its consequences.
What's clear in these examples, and throughout the book, is that Prior is, first and foremost, a teacher of stories. Drawing on Milton, she comments that "the power of truth lies not in abstract propositions but in the understanding and willful application of truth by living, breathing persons which can occur only in the context of liberty." Prior loves stories because she understands well their incarnational authority to teach us, to guide us into wisdom. She knows this power so well that she's devoted her life to sharing her love of stories by teaching them to innumerable students. Booked is effective—moving—precisely because it is written by a teacher who is purposed with love for both her subject and the readers with whom she feels compelled to share it. Yet, Prior's teacherly voice is also supplemented—sharpened—by a loving observance of the world around her, communicated in passages so literary that they are worthy of the literature that has formed her life and book. For example, a barn she visited regularly as a child is described in a passage that is a literary feast:
The old barn was a behemoth, a cavernous and yawning black space broken only by layers of wooden haylofts on one side and, on the other, a long wall of feed troughs. Wood slats nailed in assorted arrangements to walls and posts fashioned rough ladders for climbing from loft to loft. Although forbidden most of the time from doing so—such decrees made more out of concern for nutrients in the hay than for the safety of the children—we loved climbing up and along the beams and jumping back down into heaps of prickly fresh-cut hay. A small milk room cornered the left front of the building, where my grandmother separated the cream from the smooth, warm liquid just squeezed from soft udders. She'd pour the froth into a large, wooden barrel and churn it with her strong hands into the best butter I've ever tasted. Everything in the barn, except the hay and the cows, was made of wood, grayish-brown splintery wood as ancient as the forests that ringed the pasture, in the midst of which the barn sat brooding.
Passages like this one perhaps go the furthest in proving Prior's mom a prophet, for her daughter indeed has been given that "perceptive" imagination—"eyes to see," as it were—which is at the heart of both theology and literary artistry.
Most impressive, though, is that Prior's book begins with an acknowledgement not of her all-time favorite book, Great Expectations, but of Mrs. Lovejoy—the teacher who gave her the Dickens novel and cultivated in her a love for that classic. The acknowledgement hints at the wisdom which propels Prior's memoir and gives it soul. Prior understands both the power of books and their proper place—that they are ultimately "gifts" for her formation, gifts which should draw her to the Giver: "Books have formed the soul of me. I know that spiritual formation is of God, but I also know—mainly because I learned it from books—that here are other kinds of formation, too, everyday gifts, and that God uses the things of this earth to teach us and shape us, and to help us find truth."
At every turn, Prior—well acquainted with the solitariness of the reading life—recognizes that who she has become has been a narrative filled with loving givers. It's fitting, then, that she ends with a chapter about the poetry of doubt and her relationship with God—how he met her where she was, "in the books." Prior recognizes that her personal story—the one she gets to take part in narrating—is part of a larger narrative that leads, to borrow a phrase from Fred Sanders, into the "happy land of the Trinity," that storied, culminating place of love, grace, creation, and communion.
The love of story that Mrs. Lovejoy passed to Prior, and the love of story that Prior now passes to her students, is implicitly an imperative to grow in our calling to love God and our neighbors as ourselves through an empathy which is transformative. It's a calling that implies a self lovingly cultivated as a worthy gift to give. You might call this cultivated love. And Prior's memoir? Nothing more or less than "reader response" to the greatest Story ever told.
Nick Olson is an associate editor for Christ and Pop Culture at Patheos, where he has a column on film called "The Moviegoer". His work can also be found at Filmwell, Christianity Today, Books & Culture, Think Christian, and Literature & Belief.
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