Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me
Karen Swallow Prior
T. S. Poetry Press, 2012
220 pp., $16.95
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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