Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me
Karen Swallow Prior
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
My fingers slid across smooth book spines, skimming the familiar titles lined up on the shelf, firmly and tightly, like little soldiers standing at attention. Soon I spotted the name of an old friend: King of the Wind by Marguerite Henry. It had been many, many years since I’d read this book—the tale of a royal Arabian horse and the adventures he shared around the world with a Moroccan stable boy named Agba—and countless other horse stories by Henry. It had been nearly as many years, too, since I’d stood in this space, a nearly sacred place, the library of my childhood. Maybe it really was sacred, the reliquary of my soul.
The relics, these books on the shelves in this quiet alcove, brought me here, a small-town public library nestled in the corner of a building not unlike a cathedral. Cumston Hall is a Roman-esque Revival style edifice of gothic proportions, built at the turn of the century as a gift to the town of Monmouth, Maine, from Dr. Charles M. Cumston, who had been a teacher at the first public high school in America. When I was growing up in this town, I thought of Cumston Hall as an enchanted castle, a place filled with history and story and mystery. It was home not only to all of these books, but also to a seasonal theater company that brought to life many of the stories within the pages of these books, to stuffy town meetings that sucked the life right back out, and to luminous stained-glass windows, mysterious winding stairwells, jutting balconies, mural-laden walls, ceilings painted with glorious cloud-cushioned cherubim, and—naturally—rumors of haunting ghosts. The library ensconced its children’s books in a tower-like room, which made browsing the books—hugging those lucky ones chosen to be carried home for a spell—all the more magical.
The power of these books brought me, not only back to this physical space but also to this place in my life, for on this trip I was returning to my hometown and to the library of my youth as a doctoral candidate in English literature, a life centered professionally on books. But my relationship with books was much more than professional; it was—is—personal. Deeply personal. Books have formed the soul of me.
I know that spiritual formation is of God, but I also know—mainly because I learned it from books—that there are other kinds of formation, too, everyday gifts, and that God uses the things of this earth to teach us and shape us, and to help us find truth. One such gift is that my soul was entrusted to two good parents, one a mother who loves books and who read consistently to her children as we were growing up. Just as weekly attendance at church and Sunday school was part of what it meant to belong to my family, so too was my mother reading to each of us, my two older brothers and me, every night at bedtime. These rituals were part of our lives well past the age when most of my friends were no longer tucked into bed, or read to, or made to go to church by their parents. Even into my brothers’ teen years our mother made the rounds to each separate bedroom, reading a section nightly from books of our choosing.
I’m not sure when we felt we had outgrown the bedtime stories, but I do know that my brothers and I each came to feel we had outgrown church. The bedtime stories, however, ceased long before compulsory church attendance did. Even friends or cousins who slept over on Saturday night knew they would be attending church with our family come Sunday morning. For most of them, this was the only time they ever went to church, so naturally, I was apologetic. And embarrassed. We New Englanders may derive from Puritan stock, but the stoic independence more than the religious piety has survived into the current age. I made up to my friends by entertaining them during the service: snickering at the drops of spittle that seeped from one corner of the pastor’s mouth while he preached, making naughty puns on the names of the parishioners, and singing the hymns in a high, quavering old lady voice only the friend next to me could hear. Anyone needing evidence of the human soul’s need for formation need look no further than a sneering child seated on a church pew on a Sunday morn.
Although being raised by God-loving parents is no guarantee that one will love God oneself, it certainly helps. I did love God, even if it didn’t always show, but for much of my life, I loved books more than God, never discovering for a long, long time that a God who spoke the world into existence with words is, in fact, the source of meaning of all words. My journey toward that discovery is the story of this book. I thought my love of books was taking me away from God, but as it turns out, books were the backwoods path back to God, bramble-filled and broken, yes, but full of truth and wonder.
Karen Swallow Prior is Professor of English at Liberty University and an award-winning teacher. She is a contributing writer for Christianity Today, where she blogs frequently at Her.meneutics. Prior is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild. She and her husband live on a 100-year old homestead in central Virginia with horses, dogs, and chickens. And lots of books.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com