by Jerry Waxler
This is the third in a series of essays inspired by Karen Prior’s memoir, Booked! Literature in the Soul of Me
The memoir Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, is about Karen Prior’s reliance on literature to help her learn life’s lessons. The young woman loved literature so much she became a professor. From this vantage point, offers a deeper look at the books that influenced her.
The books she mentions are well-known centerpieces of the literary canon. Each one is a great story that makes complex points. To make the experience of reading them even richer, she shows how the authors were influenced by controversies of their own times.
For example, John Donne in the sixteenth century was influenced by the strange brew of religious conflict in England, when marrying into the wrong faction could land you in jail. She tells about the culture clashes between England and Ireland as well as the literary fascination with sexuality that influenced Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in the eighteenth century. And she delves into the conflict between sexuality and respect for women in Thomas Hardy’s time in the nineteenth century.
Her memoir made me wonder what cultural influences I absorbed when I was growing up. For example, in my high school years, books by Charles Dickens filled me with compassion about the economic struggles of the poor in old England and Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle opened my eyes to the abuse of immigrant labor in the U.S. In my college years, though, the cultural influence of my favorite authors turned in a direction so confusing I almost lost my way.
In the sixties, I dove headlong into novels by widely respected authors like Jean Paul Sartre, Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett, whose portrayals of shattered societies and characters without hope riveted my attention.
Their style differed radically from the stories I had read since I was a child. In an endless stream of mystery and science fiction books, I came to expect an upswing at the end of the story. The conclusion lifted my spirits and gave me hope. The novels and plays that dominated my college years went in the opposite direction. In novel after novel, the hope offered at the beginning had evaporated by the end.
At a time when I should have been preparing for adulthood, these deep thinkers convinced me that growing up was a horrible, terrifying waste of time. I was not alone. Millions of us had been convinced by our literary giants that despair is a principle worth pursuing.
To delve deeper into European cultural history of the twentieth century, I took a college course that I thought explained the misery behind this wave of nihilistic literature. Of course they lost hope when surrounded by Russian totalitarianism, two World Wars, and the horror of the Holocaust.
But something still didn’t add up. Ordinarily, people would have looked beyond the misery to find some inherent good. My authors did the opposite. Each one seemed to vie for the most outrageous images, such as Franz Kafka’s boy who woke up as an ugly, person-sized insect. And they were honored for their dark excursions. Samuel Beckett won a Nobel Prize for works like Endgame in which two of three characters are legless and occasionally pop their heads out of the trashcans in which they live.
Decades after struggling out of the pit I had fallen into, I attempt to understand those years. How I could have fallen so far? And more poignantly, how could society have led me along such a desperate line of thinking? Now, in Karen Prior’s brief vignettes of cultural history, I have learned an important fact that helps me make sense of the whole crazy era.
At the end of the nineteenth century, despite relentless advances in science, Western intellectuals still maintained a toehold in the precarious belief in God. For proof they pointed to the mystery of life. Who else but God could have created such wonder?
According to Karen Prior, the final shove came from Charles Darwin’s observation that life is the product of statistical events. After that, anyone who believed in God was viewed as a dreamer or fool. To be accepted as a serious participant in intellectual society, college grads needed to figure out how to live without God.
In high school, I read a play about this dramatic shift. Inherit the Wind dramatized the famous Scopes Trial which pitted Charles Darwin against God. As an intellectual young man, I laughed at the foolishness of the character based on William Jennings Bryan, who defended God, and cheered for the brilliant character based on Clarence Darrow who swept Bryan’s arguments aside.
I knew the controversy but until I read Karen Prior’s memoir, I had never considered the dark pall it placed over twentieth century intellectuals. For the first time in history, they had to navigate their lives without the guiding principle of a higher power. To do so, they had to find a new mythology to live by. The literary geniuses of the time fulfilled their need by offering cynicism as the new ideal.
In the play Waiting for Godot, the characters meander in a wasteland, waiting for a savior who never comes. I followed them willingly, and when I learned from them that stories lead nowhere, I ended up with nothing to live for.
So how did I go from there back to sanity? Of course, I had no choice but to read more books. During my climb back, I reclaimed my childhood image, that I can live my life as if it has an upbeat ending. To support a meaningful ending, I had to maintain a belief in a transcendent reality.
Memoir Revolution Revealed
The responsibility of every civilization is to pass along the rules of society to their young. The terrifying fact is that we have about 20 years in which to achieve this goal. In small, intimate tribal societies, the task was achieved through advice from the elders and the stories at the campfire. In our more complex societies, we turn to books.
This is the topic of Karen Prior’s memoir. In addition to what the book is about, the very existence of her book offers an important piece of information. It represents society’s next great experiment to reclaim a personal myth. Her book is a perfect example of what I call the Memoir Revolution. By turning her life into a story, she provides us with a model of a life that is understandable, hopeful, and sharable.
So Karen Prior’s memoir, Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me resonates on multiple levels. It shares the experience of one woman’s coming of age. It offers a brief overview of intellectual history. It explores the role of books in the upbringing of children. And it shows how one woman is fulfilling her end of the bargain, writing a book to pass her experience to the next generation.
On your journey to grow up, you have gone through a variety of experiments, finding what works and what doesn’t. By writing your memoir, you could pass these lessons along to the next generation. What trap did you fall into, and more important, what tools did you use to climb back out? By leading readers toward the hopeful conclusion at the end of the story, you provide an image of a world that leads through effort toward wisdom.
Link: Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me
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