Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me is a literary memoir of a different kind.
Since she’s Chair of Liberty University’s Department of English and Modern Languages, Karen Swallow Prior might be expected to love literature and God. After all, many of us do even without her credentials. But few can bring the love of God and the impact of literature together with the engaging style and sense of word-craft found in her writing.
Booked had me hooked in the first chapter, where Dr. Prior discussed the impact John Milton’s 1644 essay Aeropagitica had on her back in college. The essay’s title harkens to the Aeropagus, an assembly named for the hill on which it met in Athens where the ancients gathered to discuss the issues of the day. Paul himself visited this forum and received an invitation to address the philosophers.
You might think then that Milton’s article is a defense of the gospel, much as Paul’s address was. Dr. Prior explains, though, that Milton – one of the great 17th c. English Christian thinkers – wrote this essay in support of free speech and, even more important to Dr. Prior’s spiritual growth, in support of free reading. Or as Milton put it, promiscuous reading. Dr. Prior explains:
Even outside of Milton’s context as a seventeenth-century Puritan, his argument for promiscuous reading is instructive, because such an approach is still both the means and the mark of the intellectually- and spiritually-mature person. …
Today the word promiscuous is usually associated with sexual behavior, but this is a more recent usage, one that comes from the word’s actual meaning – indiscriminate mixing. It’s easy to see the sexual application of the word from this definition but instructive to think about in the context of reading. It’s surprising, I think, to realize that pious and scholarly Milton is actually arguing for indiscriminate, disorderly reading. And lots of it. In Milton’s day, people had more fears surrounding promiscuous reading than promiscuous sex (the latter being rarer), so Milton had quite the challenge ahead of him.
Of course the reason Milton, a scholarly Christian, could advocate promiscuity in reading is because he knew the Holy Spirit was in him to guide his thinking. It’s not like Milton – or Dr. Prior for that matter – are suggesting that we be undiscerning in our reading, of course. It’s more a matter of being unafraid.
As Dr. Prior’s own professor challenged her, so she challenges us: step out of our reading ruts, branch out and open up to new ideas, and stop playing it safe. Who knows, someone else’s strange idea, whether ancient or modern, just might be the noble thought you need to hear.
The rest of Booked is full of just that: noble thoughts you might not otherwise learn about. She writes of the impact of such diverse works as Charlotte’s Web, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Jane Eyre and Death of a Salesman, and many more as she discusses how each affected her walk with God. While I’ve read some of the works she writes of, I found that even those with which I merely had a passing awareness were presented in a way that drew me in and took me along with Dr. Prior on her literary journeys.
Not to give anything away, but by the time you get to the story about her, her husband and the wheel barrow, you’ll see just how down to earth this literary minded professor is. You’ll also see by the end of the book how her relationship with fine literature enriched her relationship with our Father in heaven.