Books on Culture: Booked by Karen Swallow Prior

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If you were stranded on a desert island and could only have one book with you, which one would you choose? (Okay, so maybe we know what the One Book would be, but what if you could only have two?) I’m thinking about my desert island library as I read through Karen Swallow Prior’s lovely tribute to the books in her life: Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me. We’re going to be discussing this book on Mondays in January, and for the life of me, I don’t know where to begin. This is one of those books where—if we were sitting across from each other at the local coffee shop—we would excitedly talk over top of each other about our favorite parts, swooningly read lines aloud with drama, and proudly display our penned up margins atop dog-eared pages.

It’s a good book.

This week we discuss chapters 1-3 and perhaps the best place to begin is with the books. Each chapter is inspired (or explained?) and subtitled by a certain literary work. Chapter one: John Milton’s Areopagitica, chapter two: Charlotte’s Web (I know that one), chapter three: Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “Pied Beauty.” In chapter one, describing her relationships with books, Prior—who is a Professor of English—says, “…my relationship with books was much more than professional; it was—is—personal. Deeply personal. Books have formed the soul of me.” And this is what Booked is about—how the author’s reading life as a girl shaped her and helped her make sense of the world. But this is more than a memoir. Prior may begin with the personal, but her own story opens us up to larger, overarching moral themes. She bridges the two so artfully that the reader does not have to exert much effort at all to step into the story. Thoughts on censorship (chapter 1) mingle with awe and caution regarding the power of words (chapter 2) and stories about how words help us make sense of our differences (chapter 3). These are not easy subjects to write about, and the author does so with such care and sensitivity that I found myself deeply moved on more than one occasion.

Chapter two, The Life-giving Power of Words: Charlotte’s Web, for example, is a beautiful chapter, full of idyllic stories of farm life and the author’s love of animals. In it, Prior shares the story of her first horse and the colt the mare bore, Sonny. Though eleven-year-old Karen loves Sonny, she understands that he is more than she can handle. She ends up selling the horse and years later learns that he came to a bad end. The author still carries the heavy burden of Sonny’s story.

Yes, Mother Nature herself, unassisted by human beings, populates the planet with, at present, 1.7 million (more or less) animal species. Who knows how many in ages past and to come? Perhaps a young girl’s shouldering the weight of the sad fate of just one of these creatures is an unnecessary, sentimental burden. Perhaps that girl felt a bit too deeply. Yet, Jesus said that not even one sparrow falls to the ground outside of God’s care. I believe in a God who knew about Sonny, too. And that means He also knew about this one girl and the way she failed Sonny. I’m not sure why I find that comforting. Some might not, but I do.

This is what I’ve found in Booked: none of those meaningless platitudes that Christians are so famous for, but hard questions—because life is hard sometimes— and beautiful truth. The truth that Jesus is there, in the midst of all the messiness. And that is enough.

So, please. Do not let the title of the first chapter (Books Promiscuously Read: John Milton’s Areopagitica) scare you away from this lovely book. You may not have read some of the more obscure works that Prior mentions, but it’s not necessary to understand the ways they inform a life and enrich a faith.

As for me, I’m going to be carrying a chest of books to that desert island. Karen Swallow Prior has introduced me to—and reminded me of—some words that might make good beach reading. How about you? What’s in your desert library?

Want to join the discussion? If you are reading along and post on Booked on your blog, drop the link in the comment box. Or just leave your thoughts here. Join us next week as Cheryl Smith leads the discussion on chapters 4-6 of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me. Our book discussion in the month of February will be on Tim Keller’s latest: Every Good Endeavor. Hope you will join us for that one too!

Image by Kerah Kemmerer. Used with permission. Post by Laura J. Boggess, author of The Wings of Klaio series.

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