Hooked by Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (a review)

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.

It makes sense. After all, our Savior is the Word himself, and he loved to tell a good story.


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31 Responses to Hooked by Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (a review)

  1. KSP says:

    Thank you, Tim, for your kind and illuminating words here about BOOKED. Thank you, too, for coming along on my journey with books. It is my hope that reading my book will open up for readers the ways the books they’ve read in their life journeys have helped make them who they are, too. After all, we are a people of the Book.

    Karen Swallow Prior

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for all your encouragement in my blog writing too, Karen. Books are powerful stuff because books are stuffed with words and, as I said above, our Savior is the Almighty Word himself. In the right hands, words can do wonderful things. The words you used in Booked are evidence of that, and I thoroughly enjoyed it all.

  2. Jeannie says:

    I’ve seen this book reviewed twice lately, and it sounds wonderful — it’s now on my ever-lengthening wish list.

    The Milton quote made me imagine a recovery-type group where members say, “Hi, I’m Jeannie, and I’m a promiscuous reader.” Except in that group members encourage you to continue, not stop.

  3. Aimee Byrd says:

    Lately I’ve felt pretty disorderly in my reading, but I don’t think in the sense that this author is promoting 🙂 I have my hand in too many books at the same time these days! But I have taken a veer from my “usual” and have spent my evenings enjoying essays and short stories. It has been a great break from the theology books that I do love. This review is not helping my disorder! Sounds like a great read that I will have to put on the list.

    • Tim says:

      “This review is not helping my disorder!”

      Turnabout is fair play, Aimee. You have wreaked havoc on my to-be-read pile with all those recommendations given at your site!

  4. LLM says:

    Hi Tim! I was on WordPress earlier and missed this new post somehow. Then checked Twitter and saw Karen Swallow Prior had linked to it! I thought, hey, I know this Tim! : ) Although I’ve never known Karen personally, we lived in the same area of western NY in the 1990’s where she was well known in pro-life circles. I lost track of her until several years ago when I was pleasantly surprised to see her position at Liberty. So…thanks for this review. I love what you share from the book on promiscuous reading. Reminds me of something a seminary prof of mine emphasized – that “imager’s image” – meaning all humans are divine image bearers, therefore we should be able to find truths in all that they create. He encouraged us to look at culture, movies, books, art, etc through that lens.

    • Tim says:

      Laura, I am stoked that this builds on connections you already have with Karen! I’ve never met her either, but we’ve been in cyber-contact through blogs and emails for about a year. I also had a chance to chat with her as part of a radio call-in show last month where she was interviewed about Booked. That conversation helped formulate the points I made in the article here today. The interview is available on-line: http://www.moodyradio.org/radioplayer.aspx?episode=98273&hour=1 (I show up as the last caller, along about 42:30 on the recording, but the whole interview is worthwhile).

      • LLM says:

        Tim, Thanks for the link! Now I know what your voice sounds like! : ) By the way, I’m a LOTR fan too. I’ve read through all the books (including The Hobbit) at least 4 times…it might be 5. But now its been 3 or 4 yrs since I did so. Recently as I walked by a LOTR poster on the wall of my home library, I felt a profound sense of nostalgia and felt as though I missed dear friends. Should I be concerned? Time to read the books again…

      • Tim says:

        LotR is amazing. I’m like you, in that I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read the trilogy and The Hobbit. I always start with The Hobbit and then read through the next three in order to get the total experience. And when I finish the last of the appendices after The Return of the King, I am immediately thinking that it’s time to read them all again. It’s even more of a draw to me than re-reading Jane Austen’s six novels (and I’ve lost count of the number of times through them as well).

        Oh, and about that voice, I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it in any of my articles but I used to do some radio back when I was in college and law school. As far as hearing it now goes, though, I think there may be some regulars in my courtroom who would like to hear it quite a bit less!

    • KSP says:

      Hi, LLM! Here I am, alive and well. Thanks for reading. Now along with WNY, we apparently have Tim’s blog in common!

  5. This sounds like a book I will enjoy, since I’m on a similar journey. Immersing myself in fine literature and surrounding myself with edifying friendships has greatly enriched my relationship with our Lord. Thanks for the recommendation. I just loaded it onto my Kindle. I’ll let you know as soon as I get a chance to read it.

  6. Srirup Chatterjee says:

    Ah, the pleasures of promiscuity – good old Milton. I must say that my parents actively promoted this sort of promiscuity in me trusting I suppose to my own good sense (the counter part to the Holy Spirit?) So I landed up delving into all sorts of rubbish and also scriptures of many religions extant and extinct. Well I did chew on them as advised by Bacon but how much I have managed to digest is open to question.

    I have a question following on from the reference to Paul’s visit to Athens. Did the early church fathers pick up on this and then incorporate Aristotle’s ideas into Christianity. Why else did they hold so much truck to this pagan Greek philosopher? If I recollect correctly Thomas Aquinas (and others) referred to Aristotle as the Aeropagite.

    • Tim says:

      I think Aristotelian logic influenced early church thought, but not in a way that eclipsed Scripture. People like Augustine and Athanasius were careful to stay grounded in the Bible.

      For your question about whether good sense is a counter-part tot eh Holy Spirit, I’d say no. The Holy Spirit is God, of course, and our own “good sense” is part of our created nature and therefore by definition not God. As Jesus said, it’s Holy Spirit who can guide us into all truth. (John 16:13.) Our own sense is not enough. That’s why people need God.


      • Srirup Chatterjee says:

        Ok, the last thing I want to do is get involved in a complex theological discussion, mainly because my knowledge of Christian theology (or any theology for that matter) is very meagre.
        My comment on good sense and Holy Spirit was rather a throwaway one but since you so kindly referred to it, may I speak a little more on it? I hope that does not break any protocols of your blog as we have strayed a bit from the original topic of the book reviewed.
        My point was that if the sense inside you is good, or Good, then that is because God/Holy Spirit is inside you. In other words if you are getting “Good” guidance from your sense then that is the same as God is guiding you. But I don’t want to get into semantics.
        I know that volumes have been written about the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit but I am reminded of what our teacher (a fairly learned priest) said when we were taught the New Testament in high school, that it refers to unrepented sin. Which leads me to think that the Holy Spirit must be inside you for you to reject it by your own lack of repentance.
        I hope I am not been dogmatic here; just some throwaway thoughts.

      • Tim says:

        I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, Srirup. If good guidance is defined as guidance from the Holy Spirit, then your earlier statement is well-supported scripturally. The way you describe this guidance is right in line with orthodox biblical doctrine. In fact, I might steal borrow it soon!

        And as for protocols on discussion on this blog, there are none beyond what is stated on my Comment Clues page. We follow side roads an rabbit trails all over the place around here. Makes for good fun, I think.

  7. Terrific review, Tim! Well done! I’m glad Booked is getting attention – I adored reading it. (Everyone: Books make great Christmas gifts and this is one you’ll return to over the years like the classics she explores.)

  8. KSP says:

    Tim (and commenters): I have a Facebook fan page for BOOKED where I am posting reviews and blogs (such as this one) as well as chapter excerpts. Come on over and “like” the page, if you are so inclined! https://www.facebook.com/BookedLiteratureInTheSoulOfMe

  9. laura says:

    Tim, thank you for inviting me over to read this review. Karen’s thoughts in the first chapter were some of my favorites. I like the way you say this,”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.” Yes! Well said. I found myself wanting to stand up and pump my fist at some of the content on Aeropagitica. Nice to meet another fellow bookworm.

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