Wiseblood Books

A Baptist Discovers Tradition

Chene Heady

 

booked

Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Karen Swallow Prior is available from Amazon.com.

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).

Exiles

Reviewed by Meredith Wise

Exiles

by Ron Hansen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008
227 pages, $23.00

The first thing to keep in mind about Exiles, if you are going to avoid being disappointed, is that it is a novelized biography rather than a conventional novel. Ron Hansen imposed some very strict limits on his invention, which he summarized in a discussion on the web journal InsideCatholic: [Read more...]

Book Review: Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age

Joseph O’Brien

Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age
by Gregory Wolfe
ISI Books, 2011
278 pp., $29.95 (hardcover)
ISBN: 1933859881

One look at any art museum and the numberless portraits of the Madonna and Child, or depictions of the Nativity, the Crucifixion or the Last Supper that invariably hang there will demonstrate exactly how successful the relationship between the Church and the artist has been in the history of Western civilization. [Read more...]

“Little Volcanoes”: An Interview with Amy Welborn

I don’t know how it comes up or how we talk about it in a way that we both understand, but for some reason, I get it in my head that I want her to know something about me. I need to communicate this thing that explains me, that explains us, that explains our presence, how we ended up here out of all the places in the world that we could be tonight. I say what I think might be correct: Mi sposo, morto. She gasps, reaches a hand to touch mine, and I work out a way to tell her more about it.
I point to my heart.

[Read more...]

Book Review: Oblations

Meredith Wise

Oblations
By Nick Ripatrazone
Gold Wake Press, 2011
92 pp.; $14.00
ISBN: 978-0982630969

“All things counter, original, spare, strange.” Oblations begins with an epigraph from “Pied Beauty,” the poem which gave Dappled Things its name. If I had to choose between adjectives, I would say that these Oblations are offerings of the spare. [Read more...]

Book Review: Mansfield Park

Dena Hunt

Mansfield Park
By Jane Austen
Ed. Eleanor Bourg Donlon
Ignatius Critical Editions, 2010
566 pp., $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-58617-418-7

In this new edition of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park from the Ignatius Press series of critical editions, editor Eleanor Bourg Donlon fulfills the Ignatius promise of a traditional approach to the study of literature. There’s no way to understand the value of such an approach without contrasting it to others, and the single most dominant publisher of critical editions is Norton. Those of us who are veterans of English undergraduate studies were taught to regard Norton anthologies and critical editions as well-nigh biblical in authoritativeness, the point of reference in a zillion term papers or a zillion-plus classroom “discussions.” [Read more...]

Book Review: House of Words

Reviewed by Joseph O’Brien

House of Words
By Jonathan Potter
Korrektiv Press, 2010
94 pp., $15
ISBN: 1439258031

“Nature is a Haunted House—but Art—a House that tries to be haunted.” Penned in a letter to her sponsor and editor T.W. Higginson, Emily Dickinson zeroes in here on what the human imagination is about when it sets down to create—although “create” is not quite the word we want in this case. [Read more...]

Book Review: The Eternal Smile: Three Stories

Reviewed by Matthew Lickona

The Eternal Smile: Three Stories
By Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim
First Second, 2009
176 pp., $16.95
ISBN: 1596431563

Graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang writes on his website, “I’ve always struggled with how to incorporate my faith into my comics in an authentic way.” (Yang is Catholic; the line comes in a description of how he came to write The Rosary Comic Book.) He also writes that The Eternal Smile: Three Stories, his collaboration with artist Derek Kirk Kim, is about “the relationship between fantasy and reality,” and how “geek fantasy media can suck the life right outta ya.” [Read more...]

Theatrical Review: The Screwtape Letters

Janice Walker

The Screwtape Letters
Fellowship for the Performing Arts
Westside Theatre & Box Office, 407 W 43rd St (9th Ave), NYC.
Performances begin May 10, 2010

The snake may have all the lines, but this was never put to such glorious effect as in the Fellowship for the Performing Arts’ production of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. In this more than timely production now on national tour, actor Max McLean as demonic Under Secretary Screwtape has brought a new dramatic energy to the devilish epistolary and holds up a mirror to our own noisy, confounded, joyless age. [Read more...]

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By Uwem Akpan
Little, Brown and Company, 2008
368 pp., $23.99/$26.99
ISBN: 9780316113786

It is a great thing that these seven stories, having been chosen for a certain famous book club, will now receive a flood of richly deserved attention. It is a shame that so little of the attention will take into account how Uwem Akpan’s Catholic faith shapes his narratives, or even find that phenomenon worth accounting for. Without such an accounting, the stories cannot be completely understood. Because without such an accounting, the stories—as the New York Times review of July 27, 2008, found them—can be read as merely “grim reportage” of horrors on the ground on a continent few American readers have visited and still fewer understand. [Read more...]

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