Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me
by Karen Swallow Prior
New York: T.S. Poetry Press, 2012
220 pages, paperback, $15.00
By day Dr. Karen Swallow Prior is an English professor specializing in eighteenth-century British literature. But in some circles she is better known for her side job as a regular blogger for Evangelical Protestantism’s fl agship periodical, Christianity Today. Prior’s recent volume Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me synthesizes her two sides, combining a professor’s astute literary analysis with a blogger’s frank personal confession. As its title implies, Prior’s text traces the impact literature has had on her self-formation, analyzing the works that have “booked” her life and the life these texts have shaped. Each chapter takes its name and frame from a literary work that either influences or provides an interpretive key for a turning point in her life. To take one example that should appeal to readers of the present periodical, “God of the Awkward, the Freckled, and the Strange” makes sense of adolescence by way of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. But why, the reader may already be wondering, should literary Catholics care to read the memoirs of a Protestant blogger?
With this volume, Prior has made a valuable contribution to the ongoing debate about the relevance of the Western literary tradition in a postmodern age. The primary value of Prior’s approach to this topic is that it is almost entirely existential. Arguments in favor of the classics—and the liberal arts educational model that emphasizes these core texts—tend to be either highly theoretical treatises (think John Henry Newman) or cultural critiques (think Alan Bloom or E.D. Hirsch). While such arguments remain valuable—who could presume to displace Blessed John Henry Newman?—they sometimes lack resonance with a postmodern audience. For better and worse, postmodern readers have been taught to distrust wide-ranging theoretical treatises as metanarratives and to regard cultural critiques as thinly veiled acts of political aggression. Prior usefully supplements Newman, using the genre of memoir to explain the spiritual value of literature to our subjective, affective era.
Prior is commendably honest as a memoirist, and depicts her young self as a creature of our fragmented, postmodern world. As she grows up in the 1980s, her identity is full of fissures. Raised a devout Baptist, she eagerly plots the loss of her virginity, without any admitted loss of faith. In what may be an even deeper contradiction, she defines herself as both a budding young intellectual and a metalhead, a paradox that will befuddle anyone who remembers the bands Quiet Riot and Twisted Sister. Considering herself a feminist and freethinker, she watches women dance in cages at concerts and herself hits on the musicians in bar bands.
Newman said that the goal of the liberal education was to see oneself and the world whole, to integrate each piece of knowledge into a coherent system that reasonably approximates the infinitely complicated universe of which we are part. Prior’s experience as a prolific reader is the discovery of the possibility of integration: of faith and reason, of the diverse parts of the self, of the individual and the world. Through the pursuit of words, she finds the Word that connects them all and gives them meaning.
The work’s most powerful chapters are those that address this process most directly, those that tell the tale of her late teens and early twenties.
For the present purpose, the chapter on Charles Dickens can stand in for the others. Prior sees Dickens’ memorable comic creation, Mr. Wemmick (from Great Expectations), as the poster boy for our age. Wemmick is the “quintessential modern man” precisely because he is the ultimate fragmented man. In his job as a clerk at a law office in London, he is perfectly coldhearted and pragmatic, to an extreme that could even seem unethical. But in his small house in the suburbs—which is literally his castle, surrounded by a miniature moat with a miniature drawbridge— he is a good-hearted sentimentalist, caring for an elderly parent and courting an innocent bride. The public and private selves are antitheses that, as Wemmick himself is placidly aware, can never meet. The shock of recognition Prior encounters discovering Mr. Wemmick is a powerful argument for the value of literary reading. Without such moments, how do we ever come to see that our own internal division is not an inevitability, but a problem? How do we even begin to search for wholeness? For Prior, reading becomes the pathway to a unified (and redeemed) self and world, an escape from an existence such as Wemmick’s; for her, this is what reading is all about. As the more recent stories in this book—and my own conversations with Prior and her students— attest, Prior views her professorate as a chance to help others similarly read their way to self-integration.
If I have a quibble with Booked, it’s that Prior may not realize how Catholic her intellectual bent truly is. At times, she casts her reading experience as a vindication of an extreme version of the Protestant principle of private judgment. Citing Milton’s Areopagitica, she alleges that her experience shows the value of “promiscuous reading.” In the opening chapter and elsewhere, Prior asserts that she is arguing for the value of consuming texts of any level of quality, written from any perspective, and defending any thesis. The individual mind, if unshackled, will find truth, no matter from whence it starts, and no matter what method or course it pursues. This idea is both safely Progressive and solidly Protestant (in that faith’s most individualistic vein); beside the rare Fundamentalist, it is unlikely to find many critics.
However, the text itself seems to tell a different—and, from my perspective, wiser and more interesting—story. Although Prior may defend horror fiction in the occasional stray sentence, each book that has truly influenced her, each book that merits a chapter, is a classic work in the Western literary tradition. Prior’s own reading is anything but promiscuous, and when she analyzes Madame Bovary, a literary character whose identity is truly formed by reading trashy novels, her response is a justifi ed aversion. Madame Bovary provokes Prior to make an important admission (lacking in the work elsewhere, and in need of further explanation) that reading the wrong books in the wrong way can actually malform the self. Reading does not inherently bring about integration, one wishes she would explicitly acknowledge; allowing oneself to be shaped by a tradition greater than oneself may.
Prior has recently written—in the December 2012 New Oxford Review—of her love for Catholic writers, and her despair of finding writers of similar merit in her own denomination. In Booked, we find her again grappling with Catholic concepts, putatively intending to argue for Protestant individualism, but really and more substantially making the case for tradition. Her work shows why, even in secular matters like literature, we need a canon, a collective yardstick.
Booked provides jaded and weary postmodern readers with an accessible entrance point into the Western literary tradition.
This tradition is suffused with Catholicism, often depending on Catholic motifs and conceptual vocabulary even when it wishes to contest or deny the Faith. Hence, Catholic lovers of the arts can be grateful for Prior’s work, perhaps the more so as they acknowledge the premises on which she depends but does not yet confess.
Chene Heady is an associate professor of English at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia. He has published articles in such periodicals as America, the New Oxford Review, Southwest Review, and Renascence. He has also previously published in Dappled Things (Saints Peter and Paul issue, 2010).