When I was a young parent building a library of kiddie lit for my children, it dawned on me that I’d heard bits and pieces of the Good News long before I first read the Gospel of John during high school. I learned about faith and redemption from Grimm’s fairy tales like Little Briar Rose, Snow White and Rose Red, the Fisherman and His Wife, Cinderella and Rapunzel. I learned about the power of love to triumph over evil by reading Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time. I learned about transformation and resurrection from Margery Williams’ Velveteen Rabbit.
And like author Karen Swallow Prior, I learned about the power of our words, and the sacrifice of laying down one’s life for a friend as I read E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. Dr. Prior, the chair of the Department of English and Modern Languages and an Associate Professor of English at Liberty University as well as a fellow contributor to Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics blog, knows a thing or two about the power of literature to trace the shape of transcendent truth – about us, about the world in which we live, and about the One who created every single particle of it. Booked: Literature In The Soul of Me (T.S. Poetry Press, 2012) is a remarkable hybrid: one part paean to the classic literature that has fueled her life’s work as an educator and one part unforgettable memoir.
Each of the eleven chapters in Booked is based on a classic work: Gulliver’s Travels, Madame Bovary, Great Expectations, Death of a Salesman. Prior interacts with the theme of each book via thoughtful engagement with a period or event in her own life. For instance, her chapter recounting Jane Eyre’s struggle to realize her voice and identity parallels her own experience as being “demoted” from the 8th grade Cool Girl clique to the Smart Girl group. That painful experience ended up becoming a promotion in disguise, as Swallow began to embrace who she really was. Jane Eyre’s story, then, was a mirror to her own:
As it was for Jane Eyre, it was language – the power of my own voice – that helped me get through it. I kept a journal, something I’d not done since keeping a tiny lock and key diary as a little girl. I wrote in it furiously, like Harriet the Spy, scratching into the wide-ruled pages of that orange spiral bound notebook all I was thinking about those mean girls and how foolish I’d been to play their games for so long. Funny how I remember so much more vividly what that notebook looked like than the words I wrote in it. It’s like getting the words out not only erased the pain, but also the words themselves.
Prior is a consumate reader, reverent and attentive to well-crafted prose. She is also a wonderful writer, and her insight, humor and honesty will engage and challenge you, even if you’ve never read the book she references. (And if you haven’t, you may well add a title or two to your To Be Read list.) Booked succeeds in doing exactly what each literary work referenced within its pages has done for generations of readers – making the personal universal. Highly recommended.
Note: I received a review copy of the book from the author. You may ask – is this an unbiased review? I should tell you that if I hated the book, I would not feature it here on this blog. (I’ve told other authors “thanks but no thanks” after receiving and reading freebie copies from their publishers.) I enjoyed this book immensely, and am happy to share this summary and endorsement here in my little corner of cyberspace.