A Journey through the Treasures and Transforming Power of a Reading Life
Reviewed by Crystal Hurd
I have a rather large library in my home, and nearly all of the books I own were purchased upon the recommendation of a good friend whose judgment (and literary tastes) I trusted. Nothing is more pleasant than hearing a dear friend exclaiming that I “simply have” to read a new book. Nearly all of the authors that I adore now were at one time a suggestion. The same is true with Sarah Clarkson’s latest work Book Girl.
Book Girl defies typical genre definitions. Similar to Karen Swallow Prior’s Booked, Book Girl is a blend of memoir and literary examination. Clarkson describes her work as a “book that explores in memoir and story what it means to be a book girl, for story to suffuse and shape a woman’s experience, for books to walk with her as she navigates the varied seasons of her life” (xi). Clarkson calls this state “storyformed.” One of Clarkson’s aims with the book is to illustrate how literature can assist in the development of individuals. Clarkson herself grew up in a house full of books; in fact, she reveals that her mother read to her in the womb, a practice that Clarkson herself continued with her newborn daughter. She admits that books were instrumental in shaping her perspective of the world: “Before I knew how bad the world could be, I knew that it was wonderously good” (ix). Clarkson’s story is the driving concept of the book, but the structure is based upon the power of books and how they create a more hopeful, more inspiring generation.
Clarkson’s book is organized in short chapters, which are easy to read and digest. Her first chapter explains how to “craft a book list,” while her second chapter provides tips on how to create a habit of reading. After these introductory chapters, the proceeding sections highlight the power of literature to shape and develop individuals intellectually, imaginatively, and spiritually. Clarkson provides a short introduction with personal reflection, then she suggests books accompanied by short summaries. I found myself underlining not only interesting quotes, but books to add to my own library. I found the sections informative and enjoyable. The lists in each chapter are not exhaustive or tedious, but quick and helpful guides for pleasurable reading.
One of the strengths of this book is Clarkson’s profound sense of intimacy. Her tone and language establish an immediate connection with her audience. In addition, Clarkson shares many moments from her own life in which literature ultimately led to healing: an adolescent move across the country as a teenager, a series of disappointments early in her publishing career, a diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder, a deep struggle with her faith, and a disheartening miscarriage early in her marriage. Never does Clarkson come across as overly sentimental or uncomfortable in these moments; in contrast, she makes us feel that she is coming into our confidence. Book Girl boasts of Clarkson’s beautiful style. In a section on how books cultivate imagination, Clarkson recalls a time at Oxford when she wrestled with the fact that literature nourished her as much as scripture:
The question burned on the edge of my tongue, and drive by the hunger in my heart, I blurted it out: “How can a story or a moment of beauty be as true as a doctrinal statement? Sometimes it’s the only way I can believe in God. But how in the world can I defend that?’
My tutor kept his place by the window, wrapped in a woolen coat warm enough for a Narnian winter. A beam of low, wintered sunlight fell across his face, obscuring the keen eyes behind his glasses, lending an inscrutable calm to his countenance as he turned to face me and, in a voice of perfect English precision, told me that I must not, “simply must not” think of stories as untrue (137).
Clarkson’s blend of beautiful and effusive prose married to keen and insightful observations makes this book a delight to read. In addition to personal reflection, Clarkson also refers to scientific research which supports her assertions about the importance and practicality of reading for both young children and adults. Clarkson posits that our culture should spend more time wrapped up in a good novel, and that such literary exercise activates areas of the brain and contributes to a growing empathy in our culture.
Clarkson’s recommendations are extremely helpful. Most readers will find notable authors mentioned in several chapters, including generous references and recommendations for C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Elizabeth Goudge, Wendell Berry, Marilynne Robinson, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, George Eliot, and L.M. Montgomery, among many others. Her lists are varied, nuanced, and informative. Clarkson explores fiction and nonfiction thoroughly in these lists, relying on her love of words, as well as her training as a theologian at Oxford, to drive her reading habits.
Book Girl offers not merely a list of suggestions, but rather a journey to discovering and understanding how literature is both fascinating and formative. Sarah Clarkson has crafted a pleasurable memoir, which also features literary reflection, inspiration, recommendations, and most importantly, encouragement. Clarkson writes about the prodigious power of literature, and her own work is no exception. As a “book girl” myself, I found a deep kinship with Clarkson; I found new voices through this work, while uncovering a renewed appreciation for authors I already adored. This stellar work isn’t just for “girls” but for all readers who have been transformed by the power of words.