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


It was many years before I learned that repentance means a change in thinking, not just a change in heart. During those restless years of unrepentance, I would lie awake at night and think about the things I was choosing to do—all of them variations of my failing to live up to the expectations I had been given and, deep down, had accepted for my life. But I didn’t desire to change a thing. I wanted to do what I wanted to do, during that dark night of the will. But, St. Augustine cried out to God in his Confessions, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”

Some nights I would rock myself to sleep. Some nights I would sing over and over in my head a portion of a song I had heard as a little girl and turned into a kind of prayer. And some nights I would really pray. I asked God to give me the desire to desire to change. That was as close as I was willing to meet him, and no further.

And he met me where I was. In the books.

~ Karen Swallow Prior, from Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me

In her masterful work Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, Karen Swallow Prior delivers an intimate confessional journaling of her life through the lens of authors with whom she has interacted.  Though none of us can appreciate the nuance of these brilliant essays better than she, we nonetheless find ourselves in hushed appreciation of her bold vulnerability, and we are blessed by it.

In his postscript to The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco wrote

“Thus I rediscovered what writers have always known (and have told us again and again): books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.”

Somewhere in the middle of Dr. Prior’s book, I realized our kinship in the matryoshka –- those nested Russian dolls.  As her life has been shaped and informed by the books she read, so now was her book affecting my own.  I was at once seized with my accountability to further the conversation.  I also wondered: Who was in the mind of Austen, Donne and Miller?

It is of course impossible to write compelling prose without drawing out and examining the experiences of one’s life, but that feat should not be underestimated.  One must, as they say, name names. Steinbeck barely disguised his subjects from his real world inspiration and Hemingway, in the end didn’t even try. More so, writing compelling prose (as Prior does here) is much more than calling on remembrance.  With literature as our sounding, writing becomes an exposure of the soul.  Only she knows the agony of the decisions she made in choosing what and how much to reveal.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote

“’That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”

The same can be said of those rare friends who illumine our journey by the light of their own. This business of loving one’s neighbor as one’s self is tough business, but thanks be to God for those that do.