Review of Karen Swallow Prior’s Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me

“I thought my love of books was taking me away 16121977from God, but as it turns out, books were the backwoods path back to God, bramble-filled and broken, yes, but full of truth.”

Karen Swallow Prior has reminded me why I love reading and literature and why it has shaped both my mind and soul in the 35 years since I embraced it both as undergraduate discipline of study as a student, as a spiritual discipline, and one of my greatest loves since I was in grade school. Her book Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (T.S. Poetry Press; Ossining, New York 2012) is an invitation for the reader to join her on a look back at her journey of faith and doubt, as she recalls her life through the study of literary classics through which God revealed Himself via the “backwoods path” of literature.

I resonated with her journey as she recalls her very conservative Christian upbringing with its singular focus on “the world to come” (the Kingdom of God) and it’s intolerance of popular culture. I too, grew up in such an environment, and though I have continued to believe in a gracious God of redemption and hope, I found it a struggle at times to reconcile faith with my wide ranging interests in reading.

As she shares her journey,  Prior takes the reader on a re-read of several classic novels such as Charlotte’s Web, Great Expectations, Jane Eyre and Gulliver’s Travels; the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, (“Pied Beauty”) and John Donne’s Metaphysical Poetry; and the unforgettable tragedy of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of Salesman through which she unpacks various episodes of her life and addresses the issues of intimacy, doubt, faith, the difficulty of compartmentalizing life, and how tragedy and comedy can bring new hope to life.

Using an overarching theme of ‘promiscuously reading’ for truth (via John Milton in his Areopagitica) to share her journey, Prior ultimately concludes that

“It was many years before I learned that repentance means a changing in thinking, not just a change in heart. During those restless years of unrepentance, I would like awake at night and think about the things I was choosing to do-all of them variations of my failing to live up to the expectations I had been given and, deep down, had accepted for my life. But I did not desire to change a thing. I wanted to do what I wanted to do, during that dark night of the will…

…Some nights I would sing over and over in my head a portion of a song I had heard as a little girl and turned into a kind of prayer. And some nights I would really pray. I asked God to give me the desire to desire to change. That was as close as I was willing to meet him, and no further.

And he met me where I was. In the books.”

What I liked about this book is both her simple honesty regarding her own journey of faith combined with a deep understanding of literature across several periods and genres and how her soul was fed at a far deeper level as a result. This is an honest and penetrating book written in a style for those thinkers who are seekers of truth with a capital ‘T’ not just for the mind but for the soul.

I rate this book a ‘great’ read.

Note: I bought a Kindle copy of this book for my own reading and chose to review it.

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