"Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me," by Karen Swallow Prior

“Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me,” by Karen Swallow Prior

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It is a happy accident that I picked up Karen Swallow Prior’s Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me right after I had finished Norman Wirzba’s Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating: both ask us to reconsider the spiritual value of things we usually take for granted.

Wirzba writes:

To receive food as a gift and as a declaration of God’s love and joy is to receive food in a theological manner….While it is certainly true that we eat to live, Trinitarian-inspired eating means that we eat to share and nurture life….eating theologically considered is about extending hospitality and making room for others to find life by sharing in our own. Self-offering, accepting responsibility for another’s well-being, turning’s one own life into nurture for others—these are the signs of life as empowered by the Spirit.

For Wirzba, what’s at stake is not just gratitude to the Almighty, but also understanding how a life transformed by the passion of Jesus “makes room for others.” For a life to be full, he says, it must given away, but “the movement of self-offering is not easily made.” Food can be mere fuel, or, as with anything pleasurable, a means of self-medication. Or it can be this incredible source of love—giving and receiving it.

What Wirzba does for food, Prior does for books, which she calls “everyday graces.” The obvious difference in their projects is that people readily grant the importance of food, even if they are not eating “theologically.” Not so books. Sure, there are a few adventurous tales that take the country by storm every year or so, but besides that escapist fare, it’s a rare person you’ll meet who confesses to reading “promiscuously” a great deal of stories and genres that bring the whole spectrum of human activity into focus, including those unedifying tales and theorizations that some moral arbiters believe we would be better off without.

Prior begins her memoir of her life of “promiscuous” reading exploring the oddity of an anti-censorship tract by the great poet and essayist, John Milton, in which the author argues “in the midst of the English Civil Wars, when the price for a wrongheaded idea might well be one’s head…that the best way to counteract falsehood is not by suppressing it, but by countering it with truth.”

Why, Prior wonders, at a time when very few people were literate and literacy itself was seen as an elite inheritance, would this scholar and pious Christian defend promiscuous (that is: indiscriminate, disorderly) reading? She nicely sums up why Milton believed that inclusive reading habits built a better soul than a highly discriminate approach:

The essence of Milton’s argument is that truth is stronger than falsehood; falsehood prevails through the suppression of countering ideas, but truth triumphs in a free and open exchange that allows truth to shine. God is not, Milton argues, one to “captivate” his children “under a perpetual childhood of prescription,” but rather, God expects us to exercise reason, wisdom, and virtue. “What wisdom can there be to choose . . . without knowledge of evil?” asks Milton… Those “who imagine to remove sin by removing the matter of sin” have a poor understanding of human nature and the human condition, argues Milton.

It is important to note here that Prior’s point is not that literacy is “good for you”—a kind of “mental jogging.” Many people do argue that, and perhaps they have a point. Your SAT score will go up if you read a lot. But Prior’s intention is not to help people put together a better college application, or to climb in the world by being able to say: yeah, I read Christine de Pizan.

She’s a public intellectual (see her frequent blogs for Christianity Today, her frequent letters to the editor for the News and Advance) at a time when our contemporary culture has all but demonized intellectualism. Neither Republicans nor Democrats want to identify themselves as people who have read a lot and thought a lot about the complexity of this world we’re facing. Just as in golf, there seems to be three rules (Keep your head down, Keep your head DOWN, and KEEP YOUR HEAD DOWN!!!!!!), in the degraded public sphere, there seems to be three rules: simplify, SIMplify, SIMPLIFY!!!!!!!)

Karen Swallow Prior

Karen Swallow Prior

If you are a ‘promiscuous’ reader, then you’ve read Margery Kempe, Valerie Solanas, Dorothy Day and Sarah Palin and you’re ready to compare/contrast how women have claimed “visionary” status in a public sphere populated mainly by men. You can’t make this comparison if you constrain your reading to only people who share your point of view.

I think Prior’s polemic, which builds from Milton’s, is that reading can be an important way of clarifying the life you need to lead. This is as true for secularists as for religious people. Prior’s book is unique in that I’ve mainly seen the case for reading as an edifying (character-building, value-clarifying) activity made by and for secular people:

John Leland’s Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On The Road (They’re Not What You Think)
Robert Sullivan’s The Thoreau You Don’t Know: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant
Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence

There are some exceptions to this rule besides Prior’s memoir: Steven Prothero’s Religious Literacy: What Americans Need to Know and Don’t and Paul Knitter’s Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian. As far as I know, Prior’s is the first Evangelical Christian’s apology for inclusive reading.

So, will it wash? Will “people of the book” be for all books?

I imagine that some will simply reject the notion that things less than holy have any relevance in a Christian’s life. To be empowered by the Spirit—doesn’t that require that you turn away from distractions? It’s academic, it would seem. I think Prior has a good response to this position:

I know that spiritual formation is of God, but I also know—mainly because I learned it from books—that there are other kinds of formation, too, everyday gifts, and that God uses the things of this earth to teach us and shape us, and to help us find truth.

In some sense (to bring back Wirzba), Prior is saying: God gives us a lot of food options (fast food being one of them) so that we can better appreciate what it means to eat theologically. If at the end of the day, you think a quick burger on the run can bring you nearer to Jesus, then you’ve missed something pretty vital.

The same can be said for books. God provides us with a “poetry of doubt” and a psychology and sociology of religion, not to tempt us but to invite us to better understand and develop the meaning of faith. Prior observes how in her own spiritual life

witnessing the logic of doubt [in well-written agnostic or even atheist literature] enabled [her] to work out, inversely, the logic of my faith.

Prior comes across in this memoir as a honest-to-goodness Christian. She’s not hiding anything about her flawed character or about the value of the ideas and images explored by books. She’s saying that faith is an exercise of both reason and spirit, and thus for her it seems to be an entirely negative, not to mention ineffective, strategy to shield children from reality rather than actively expose them to the sort of truth that emerges organically from the give-and-take of weighing and reckoning competing ideas against one another. Discovering truth is a process that occurs over time, more fully with each idea or book that gets added to the equation.

According to Prior, it’s not that we learn from ‘bad’ examples how to recognize the trappings of sin. There is something humbling about coming to terms with all the ways that people struggle to find meaning in life. Sometimes it just happens (Hallelujah), but often a righteous life is an uphill climb (recall Wirzba: self-offering is difficult!). Prior writes:

Yes, moments of transcendence and glimpses of the divine are real. But their rarity is their significance. Life is grounded in the mundane. But the mundane has a bad rap. The word simply means “world”; its origins are shared with the same root word for “mountain.” On the other hand, the world of ideals—meaning “forms” in the language of that premiere idealist, Plato—is up there, out there, somewhere. The world of the mundane is here and now and is not to be rejected but to be loved. Just as people are to be loved for who they are, imperfections and all, not the versions of them we make in our own image.

I recommend this book for people who like books and those who don’t.

For both I feel can and should be interested in what Prior investigates: What it’s like to be in a long-term committed relationship. What its like to be a popular-kid-in-school-turned-pariah. What it’s like no longer to want to be a popular kid in school. What it’s like to be bored and want a MUCH MORE EXCITING LIFE. What it’s like to discover that freedom is not “endless choices” but a poetics and spirituality of “embrace.” What it takes to resist conforming to someone else’s notion of who you should be and why that also is a spiritual discipline.

Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me doesn’t take long to read, but for me it was more than a quick-bite. It was a hospitable sit-down meal. I am glad I was able to receive this gift of insight into one person’s spiritual maturity, and I look forward to being invited back again.