by Jerry Waxler
The memoir Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Professor Karen Swallow Prior is about a young girl trying to make sense of life. She is not content to mindlessly accept what she’s been told by her elders. Nor does she mindlessly surrender to the tribal rituals of her schoolmates. She needs to find the truth for herself. Her memoir is about her process of deeply questioning her world, and the mistakes and lessons she learns along the way. As a young intellectual, naturally she turns to books for many of her answers.
Her memoir recounts how authors like John Donne, William Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, and Arthur Miller offer a rich source of insight. Their wisdom helps her steer through dilemmas, maintain dignity and find the high road. The memoir is one of the best I’ve seen about the intellectual development of an inquiring mind.
Professor Prior’s journey took me back to my own intellectual development. During high school, my favorite classics by Charles Dickens and Alexander Dumas did not teach me how to live. They were more like magic carpets transporting me to another place and time. When I was finished, I moved on to the next. My attitude toward books became more serious in college during the 60s. Desperate to figure out how to grow up, I poured my intensity into books. I lingered with each one, immersed myself in it, lived within the world the author created. Tragically, the books that seized my imagination were by despairing authors like Ferdinand Celine, Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett.
By the time I reached the end of that journey, instead of being prepared to face adulthood, I had lost all hope. I knew that if I didn’t find something to live for, I would die. A lifeline came to me in the form of a few pages of an obscure photocopied book that opened me to something called a spiritual path. I became a seeker, latching onto the presence of God. Things suddenly brightened. I switched reading material again, this time immersing myself in an eclectic mix of mystical writings such as Kahlil Gibran, Rumi, and the anonymously written Way of the Pilgrim. These writings provided me with a cosmic context. No longer alone in the universe, my journey made sense.
However, despite the enormous influence books have had on my life, I have read few memoirs in which books play a central role. * Now, riding Karen Prior’s magic carpet about growing up with books, I return to my youth and wonder what it would have been like to have deeper appreciation for the social lessons embedded in my classics.
In college during my hours of deepest need, I was not interested in what adults told me. I wanted to read my truths in books. I opened to each one as if it might contain the key. What if I had read a book like Karen Prior’s, that showed me how to find longer lasting guidance. Would I have grown through that period faster, with less pain and fewer mistakes? I can’t turn the clock back to my own youth, but it makes me wonder about the influence of memoirs on young people today. Perhaps some of them will suspend their disbelief, join her and other memoir authors on their journeys of discovery and then return to their own lives, enriched with new possibilities.
Unlike the authors of most of the books I read in high school, who were inaccessible and mostly dead, Karen Prior is very much alive. To learn more about her I looked her up on the web, and found she also writes articles for the Atlantic Monthly. In her articles, she is a ferocious evangelist for the value of reading. In an age filled with fear and confusion that young people are falling away from books, she urgently points out that literature is the conduit through which we pass values to the next generation.
In addition to being a science-based appeal to the power of reading, the article also addresses one of the central problems I faced as a young man. How does an intellectually voracious young person develop a notion of transcendence without resorting to doctrine?
In the article “Does Reading Make Us More Human?” Prior offers one of the most universal, least doctrine-based answers I have ever seen. She says, “What good literature can do and does do — far greater than any importation of morality — is touch the human soul.” She calls the process “Deep Reading” and makes an astonishing claim for its importance.
She says the word “read” does not just apply to written symbols. We also use the same word “read” when we attempt to understand another person’s feelings. She goes on to draw this far reaching conclusion. “In this sense, deep reading might be considered one of the most spiritual of all human activities.” Her sweeping statement shocks me. I need to deep-read her assertion that Deep Reading is spiritual. When I open my mind to her perspective, I see how it beautifully expresses the reason I love memoirs.
A work of literature, by itself is just a collection of words. By deep-reading it, we bring to life the author’s passion, years of deep thought, insight, and wisdom. Deep Reading reveals that behind every book is an author and every time we deep-read a book, we enter an intimate connection with that author. Engaging in that sophisticated, mature and interior relationship with an author is essentially a spiritual act. Her assertion agrees with my own definition of spirituality. If God is love, and God is within each one of us, by opening up to each other’s stories, we touch God.
Her experiences as a child and a teacher, and the effort she subsequently poured into writing her Atlantic articles and her memoir all add up to a life devoted to the relationship between literature and life. And by offering her lessons to the rest of us, she adds to our cultural awareness of the impact books have on our lives.
Memoirs share many journeys
In each decade of my life, I am accompanied by a different set of books. After I had learned as much as I could in my thirties from my round of spirituality books, I needed escape so I read murder mysteries. When I realized that escape wasn’t getting me anywhere, I shifted to an obsession with self-help and psychology books to learn how to relate to people and be my own best self. In my late-fifties, when I realized that life is a fascinating story, I switched again, this time reading the stories of other people.
Memoirs provide a different type of reading experience than I’ve had during previous periods. Instead of isolating various dimensions of life, this genre ties them all together. Each memoir lets me dance inside an author’s world, discovering what drives them to excel and what tries to crush their spirit, how they learn to keep going and how they turned all of that into a book.
Now I do the same dance inside Karen Swallow Prior’s memoir and I feel like I’m in a hall of mirrors. Deep-reading about her experience of learning lessons from literature makes me feel like I am in heaven. No. It’s better than that. Pondering every memoir makes me feel like I’m in heaven. Pondering this one makes me feel like I’m in heaven gazing up at heaven’s sky.
Written across that sky, I read an important message for memoir writers. After we make mistakes, learn lessons, read books, and grow up, we have the opportunity to pass our wisdom along to those who follow. By learning to translate our lives into stories, we are offering ourselves to others in a universal form, leading ourselves and our readers more deeply into what it means to be human.
In my book Memoir Revolution, in a chapter titled Finding a Language for Individual Spirituality, I explore the way memoirs enable us to share our views of transcendent truth. Professor takes my argument one step further and proposes that our individual experience, when deeply appreciated, is itself transcendent. Your memoir could contribute to this great spiritual awakening. By pouring your life experience into the stream of wisdom, you help others learn and grow.
Karen Prior’s memoir provides yet another demonstration of the profound ability of the Memoir Revolution to break down walls between strangers, to give us a way to share our wisdom and lessons. By deep reading memoirs, we can find our connection with each other, and by writing our own, we can offer others the opportunity to deeply read us.
The obvious writing prompt that emerges from this book relates to the power books have had in your own life. Write a scene in which a book strongly influenced the course of your thinking, providing lingering guidance.
You may also have counter-examples, books that tore you down. When I was in college, and struggling with my own obsessive sense of rebellion, I became infatuated with the despairing authors in 20th century Europe. I read these too deeply for my own good. If you have any counter-examples in which the ideas in a book took you off track, write a scene or story about one of those, too.
At the end of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me is a long list of study questions suitable for a literature class. These study questions raise an interesting possibility for your memoir. Could you imagine young people, or people in your target audience, discussing some facet of your life, in order to understand their own? Review the scenes or chapters in your own memoir in progress, and write a study question about some principle or challenge that could stir up conversation.
Amazon Link: Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury made the case that it was important to preserve books, but I do not recall any deep message about how a young person could apply lessons from any of the individual books to his or her own development.
* Another memoir that uses literature to explain principles of life is Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. Click here for my essay about that memoir.
For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.
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