Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University. In Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, she shares how books taught and influenced her throughout her life.
Books have formed the soul of me. 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 (p. 10).
In commenting on her parents being pretty free in what they allowed her to read, Karen says:
It seems to be 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 merges organically from the give-and-take of weighing and reckoning competing ideas against one another (p. 14).
That sounds a lot like Hebrews 5:14 (ESV): “But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” Karen goes on to say:
Books meet with disapproval because of their objectionable content. Wisdom, however, considers not only what a book says (its content), but how it says it (its form). Just as important–or perhaps more important than–whether a book contains questionable themes like sex or violence or drugs or witchcraft or candy is how those topics are portrayed. Are they presented truthfully in terms of their context and their consequences? Are dangerous actions, characters, or ideas glamorized in such a way that makes them enticing? (pp. 14-15).
Karen came to these conclusions not only from her own experience, but also from John Milton’s Areopagitica, a tract against censorship. Milton’s fellow Puritans wanted to ban books that they deemed unworthy. Milton argued instead that books should be “promiscuously read.” “Promiscuous” did not have the sexual connotations then that it does today: it just meant “indiscriminate mixing” (p. 22).
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 (p. 10).
Milton goes on to argue that “our faith and knowledge thrives by exercise,” that “Moses, Daniel, and Paul . . . were steeped in the writings of their surrounding pagan cultures,” and even bad books “to a discreet and judicious reader serve in many respects to discover, to confute, to forewarn, to illustrate”(pp. 22-23). He asserts, “Truth is strong . . . Let her and falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?” (pp. 23-24).
I don’t think either Milton or Karen are saying that “anything goes.” But we don’t have to restrict our reading to just that with which we already agree. Karen quotes 1 Thessalonians 5:21: “Test all things and hold fast that which is good” (p. 22).
I’ve spent the most time on this first chapter because I found it so fascinating. I don’t remember exactly when I started to come to some of these same conclusions– I think maybe during or not long after college. I realized that the Bible itself contains what many would consider objectionable elements, but it handles them in a way that does not glorify sin but exposes truth.
Karen goes on to discuss several different literary works and how they influenced her thinking. Charlotte’s Web had much in common with her own childhood and her grandparents’ farm (though her pet rooster wasn’t granted the same reprieve as Wilbur). Gerald Manley Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty” revealed the unexpected beauty found in surprising places. Jane Eyre’s quest to become her own person rather than Rochester’s mistress or St. John’s missionary wife gave insight to Karen’s emerging self between eighth-grade cliques. Vocation, sexuality, faith, doubt, love, and marriage were likewise informed by Karen’s reading.
I greatly enjoyed Karen’s discussion of books I was familiar with. Her chapter on Gulliver’s Travels helped clear up aspects of the book I had been confused about. Her discussion of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Madame Bovary made me want to read both of those books. I knew the former was about a girl in Victorian times who got pregnant and the latter was about an adulteress, and I had figured both would be somewhat risque. But Tess has to do with purity of heart. Either due to naivete or rape, she had gotten pregnant, which at that time meant she was “ruined.” Yet Hardy presents her purer of heart than the society that so harshly judged her. And Madame Bovary shows Emma’s struggle between the idealized life she longed for that would never be true while she missed the joys of everyday reality.
Madame Bovary changed my worldview. It made me realize that happiness is in here, not out there. That the imperfect love of a real person is far greater than the perfect love that exists only in fairy tales or movies. That living happily-ever-after begins with embracing life–not fleeing to fantasies–today (pp. 176-177).
Karen mentions throughout the book that she grew up in a home with believing parents and regular church attendance. Though she “asked Jesus into her heart” at a young age, she led a double life of sex, drugs, and drinking. She realized as an adult that she had never asked Jesus into her mind, and the Bible tells us to love Him with all our heart, soul, and mind. Furthermore, she realized that repentance involves a change of mind that results in a change of actions. While much of the book tells how God brought her to this place step by step, I wish she had included a little more about how this change came about from professing faith to really embracing it for herself.
I will warn some readers that Karen is quite frank about some of her thinking and activities in this split part of her life. But I think it’s important to realize that many young people (and even older people) are the same way, and hearing their stories will help us understand them better.
A few more quotes that stood out to me:
In focusing my attention on things much bigger than myself, ironically, I learned who I was. It’s the lesson, once again, that beholding is becoming (p. 142).
[Jonathan] Swift’s orthodox theology led him to a realistic understanding that all of man is fallen, and this includes man’s reason . . . His method was to expose the errors of rationalism by taking it to its logical extreme (p. 129).
I wanted not only to comfort the young woman, but also to get her to see that talking about such an event in a book was a safe, constructive way of dealing with these issues (pp. 101-102).
I’d love to audit Karen’s classes. I enjoyed the insights she brought out from the various works she cited and how they influenced her own growth.