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Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on December 10, 2012
Karen Swallow Prior's Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me is a simply mesmerizing read. It's like fine wine or awesome cheese cake: not to be ingested quickly, but relished and savored, for it's the product of a patient creation by a prodigiously gifted writer, excellent teacher, and perspicacious commentator on the human condition. The book brims with life and celebrates books and ideas; in the process it both discusses and displays the remarkable power of words. It takes the reader on a delightful journey, chockfull of interesting nooks and crannies, wonderfully erudite turns of phrase, surprising insights from life, candid moments of authenticity, transparency, and honesty. Allergic to pat answers or superficial analysis, it remains both eminently readable and mercifully free from an iota of cynicism. The book was a long time in the making, which shows, for it could only emerge from the heart and mind of someone who has spent many a year navigating both the world of literature and a life of fervent, substantive faith, accounting for the way it seamlessly weaves together life and literature. Although by profession I'm a philosopher rather than an English professor, the book inspires me to read more literature, while it treads the verge of great literature itself, so full it is of elegance and grace and texture. The book gets my highest and most enthusiastic recommendation. You won't regret time spent taking this enchanting foray into the world of Sonny Boy, Dabs, and Cookie; of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty; and of Swift, Eyre, and Donne.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on November 20, 2012
Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me is a wonderful read! If you like words and language, you'll find the work of Karen Swallow Prior enormously satisfying. If you like books--well--you're in for a long, insuppressible smile. If you like honesty and transparency of thought, emotions, and intelligent opinion, Booked will be a feast for your soul. I know this isn't a "Christian book" (as if anything non-human could devotedly follow Christ), but it is an insightful commentary on great works of literature from a thoughtful Christian's perspective. Karen (whom I do know on a first-name basis) is masterful in her use of language. She makes the actual reading of her book enjoyable; her stories are charming, entertaining, even informative; and her passion is obvious and contagious. This is a good book--a really good book--in every way. If a book means as much to you as it does to me on a cold winter night, get Booked, it will be better than a hot drink by the fireside. Thanks, Karen, for giving this wonderful gift to all of us!

Rev. Rob Schenck, D.Min
Washington, DC
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on December 18, 2012
When I was a young parent building a library of kiddie lit for my children, it dawned on me that I'd heard bits and pieces of the Good News long before I first read the Gospel of John during high school. I learned about faith and redemption from Grimm's fairy tales like Little Briar Rose, Snow White and Rose Red, the Fisherman and His Wife, Cinderella and Rapunzel. I learned about the power of love to triumph over evil by reading Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time. I learned about transformation and resurrection from Margery Williams' Velveteen Rabbit.

And like author Karen Swallow Prior, I learned about the power of our words, and the sacrifice of laying down one's life for a friend as I read E.B. White's Charlotte's Web. Dr. Prior, the chair of the Department of English and Modern Languages and an Associate Professor of English at Liberty University as well as a fellow contributor to Christianity Today's Her.meneutics blog, knows a thing or two about the power of literature to trace the shape of transcendent truth - about us, about the world in which we live, and about the One who created every single particle of it. Booked: Literature In The Soul of Me (T.S. Poetry Press, 2012) is a remarkable hybrid: one part paean to the classic literature that has fueled her life's work as an educator and one part unforgettable memoir.

Each of the eleven chapters in Booked is based on a classic work: Gulliver's Travels, Madame Bovary, Great Expectations, Death of a Salesman. Prior interacts with the theme of each book via thoughtful engagement with a period or event in her own life. For instance, her chapter recounting Jane Eyre's struggle to realize her voice and identity parallels her own experience as being "demoted" from the 8th grade Cool Girl clique to the Smart Girl group. That painful experience ended up becoming a promotion in disguise, as Swallow began to embrace who she really was. Jane Eyre's story, then, was a mirror to her own:

"As it was for Jane Eyre, it was language - the power of my own voice - that helped me get through it. I kept a journal, something I'd not done since keeping a tiny lock and key diary as a little girl. I wrote in it furiously, like Harriet the Spy, scratching into the wide-ruled pages of that orange spiral bound notebook all I was thinking about those mean girls and how foolish I'd been to play their games for so long. Funny how I remember so much more vividly what that notebook looked like than the words I wrote in it. It's like getting the words out not only erased the pain, but also the words themselves."

Prior is a consumate reader, reverent and attentive to well-crafted prose. She is also a wonderful writer, and her insight, humor and honesty will engage and challenge you, even if you've never read the book she references. (And if you haven't, you may well add a title or two to your To Be Read list.) Booked succeeds in doing exactly what each literary work referenced within its pages has done for generations of readers - making the personal universal. Highly recommended.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on October 27, 2012
One of my favorite books of the year! "Booked" is a must-read for anyone whose life have been changed and bettered by the "promiscuous" reading of books. In this book, Karen Swallow Prior takes us through her own journey through life as a reader, but in it, we also discover our own shared stories.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on October 26, 2012
John Milton - Karen Swallow Prior reminds us - contended that books should be "promiscuously" read. Since girlhood, Prior has been the kind of "disorderly" reader that Milton wished all readers would be. We reap the benefits of Prior's rich reading life, humor, and sharp mind on every page of this delightful memoir.

- Jennifer Grant, journalist and author of Love You More and MOMumental
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on March 14, 2013
When I was a child I was taken to a book burning. While everyone else was praising Jesus, I fought back tears.

Reading Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me was a liberating experience. I fell into its pages as if into the arms of grace and came away with a stronger belief in the power of truth. It encouraged me to continue my lifelong habit of promiscuous reading without shame.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon January 29, 2013
"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."

Karen Swallow Prior has reminded me why I love reading and literature and why it has shaped both my mind and soul in the 35 years since I embraced it both as undergraduate discipline of study as a student, as a spiritual discipline, and one of my greatest loves since I was in grade school. Her book Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (T.S. Poetry Press; Ossining, New York 2012) is an invitation for the reader to join her on a look back at her journey of faith and doubt, as she recalls her life through the study of literary classics through which God revealed Himself via the "backwoods path" of literature.

I resonated with her journey as she recalls her very conservative Christian upbringing with its singular focus on "the world to come" (the Kingdom of God) and it's intolerance of popular culture. I too, grew up in such an environment, and though I have continued to believe in a gracious God of redemption and hope, I found it a struggle at times to reconcile faith with my wide ranging interests in reading.

As she shares her journey, Prior takes the reader on a re-read of several classic novels such as Charlotte's Web, Great Expectations, Jane Eyre and Gulliver's Travels; the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ("Pied Beauty") and John Donne's Metaphysical Poetry; and the unforgettable tragedy of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of Salesman through which she unpacks various episodes of her life and addresses the issues of intimacy, doubt, faith, the difficulty of compartmentalizing life, and how tragedy and comedy can bring new hope to life.

Using an overarching theme of `promiscuously reading' for truth (via John Milton in his Areopagitica) to share her journey, Prior ultimately concludes that

"It was many years before I learned that repentance means a changing in thinking, not just a change in heart. During those restless years of unrepentance, I would like 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 did not desire to change a thing. I wanted to do what I wanted to do, during that dark night of the will...

...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."

What I liked about this book is both her simple honesty regarding her own journey of faith combined with a deep understanding of literature across several periods and genres and how her soul was fed at a far deeper level as a result. This is an honest and penetrating book written in a style for those thinkers who are seekers of truth with a capital `T' not just for the mind but for the soul.

I rate this book a `great' read.

Note: I bought a Kindle copy of this book for my own reading and chose to review it.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on February 26, 2013
Karen Swallow Prior's Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me provides a narrative for life and books that amplifies our view of both. Prior's memoir moves beyond the regular memoir form. I don't know about you, but when I read a story of an author's version of life, I rarely get the kind of engaging, sometimes challenging stories that KSP provides in Booked. She uses the particular details of her life to analyze literature and culture in a refreshing and dynamic way. If you're a book lover (or you wish you were one), Booked is well worth your time!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on December 28, 2012
Karen Swallow Prior's Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me is a good primer for the classic literary works discussed therein. Drawing on her wealth of experience reading, studying, and teaching great literature, Prior offers accessible yet insightful commentary on a handful of canonical texts, Charlotte's Web notwithstanding. Reading her explanation about the lessons of, say, Great Expectations for example can prepare those unfamiliar with Dickens's novel for their first reading of the book. I daresay that it might even whet their appetite for doing so. Even people who have read these works would benefit from considering Prior's take on them, particularly those--like me--who easily tire of canonical texts and prefer literature less critically overexposed. Yet, even for me, Prior breathed new life into books I thought beyond the possibility of revival.

Prior can rejuvenate such books because hers is not simply a primer for these texts. Marketed as a memoir, Booked transcends even that category. Devotional might be a better descriptor. It offers a vision of literature and life as mutually informing and mutually constitutive, and that vision is framed by Prior's distinctly Christian worldview, a worldview that finds God at work in our lives even within the pages of secular texts. As its table of contents shows, Booked consists of eleven chapters, each centered on a distinct literary work or set of literary works. Prior pairs each work (or set) with a personal life lesson, organizing them chronologically, thus recounting her emotional and spiritual maturation process as influenced and understood by her engagement with books.

Beyond its content, I appreciate this book's clear prose, which includes touches of the poetic and, in its Donne chapter, the seemingly inspired. The book is also eminently quotable and is crammed with witty aphorisms. But more than that, I appreciate Prior's implicit argument--that books are places that minds can meet, places that reflect our earthly and spiritual reality and that teach us about ourselves, others, and God.

I highly recommend this book to all. Lovers of literature or not, anyone can find something valuable in its pages. Though books are Prior's vehicle, her primary concern is the human condition, and she does a masterful job exploring that field through her own experiences, nicely fitting her subjective perspective into a larger context through the stories--both fictional and nonfictional--of others, including authors, teachers, friends, family members, and students. While literature may be a dirty word for some, stories matter to us all, and this book bridges the gap between texts that some may consider esoteric and the substance of our lives.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on August 10, 2014
I've never really wanted to read Jane Eyre. Until now.

Jane Eyre is just one of several pieces of classic literature that Karen Swallow Prior, Professor of English at Liberty University, uses to chronicle her own journey of self-discovery -- a journey of self-discovery through literature. In Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, Madame Bovary, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Great Expectations, Charlotte’s Web, and Gulliver’s Travels, are more than just musty old "classics" forced upon bored high-schoolers in hopes of igniting some semblance of cultural appreciation. They are signposts along the way of the author's own pilgrimage. "Booked" is not just a celebration of great literature, but a window into how stories and the truths expressed through them, can intersect our lives and guide our growing.

"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."

To Karen Swallow Prior, those "everyday gifts... that God uses... to teach us and shape us, and to help us find truth," are books.

Using Milton’s argument for "promiscuous reading" -- imbibing a wide variety of authors, genres, opinions, subject matter, and stories -- Prior sets the table for her own adventure into "literary promiscuity." Thus, Milton's Areopagitica, a speech given to counter a movement for censorship, becomes the framework for a more libertarian approach to reading. An approach that finds root in biblical literature.

"In making his argument, as a churchman to fellow churchmen, Milton cites the biblical examples of Moses, Daniel, and Paul, who were all steeped in the writings of their pagan cultures. Milton also invokes a leader of the third-century church who asserted that God commanded him in a vision, 'read any books whatever come into your hands, for you are sufficient both to judge aright and to examine each matter.' Such advice mirrors the Pauline suggestion to 'test all things and hold fast to that which is good.'"

So because “falsehood prevails through the suppression of countering ideas, but truth triumphs in a free and open exchange that allows truth to shine,” the censorship of speech and the banning of books actually becomes a hindrance to the cause of Truth. (In light of evangelical culture's censorial tendencies and allergy to anything "objectionable," this is a much needed word!)

As such, each chapter is an insightful sketch of some piece of classic literature, intertwined with humorous, touching, often highly personal experiences from the author's life. For example, using Gerard Manly Hopkins' poem "Pied Beauty," a poem that praises God for the variety of "dappled things" in nature -- "All things counter, original, spare, strange; Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?), With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim" -- Prior tells the story of Gracie.

"We once had a Boxer of brindle color, rich, honeyed brown streaked with black. A birth defect resulted in the eventual removal of her deformed front leg. We named this awkward, three-legged creature Gracie. She was strong and muscular and loved to drink water right out of the spigot. I would caress the dimpled place where her leg used to be and think about how beautiful she was in her bold asymmetry. I loved her more than I have loved any animal in the world, and more than most people. we used to take her everywhere, and everyone else loved her, too. Often, after seeing Gracie run and play with as much passion and agility as any four-legged pup, people would begin to tell us stories of disability, sometime their own, sometimes someone else's. they will tell of an accident, an illness, or war scene, all the while scratching Gracie's ears or the scruff of her neck. they would tell of victory and overcoming and joy, too. When Gracie died from a tick borne disease when she was only six, we got a new dog right away to try to fill the hole she left in our lives, but I couldn't stop crying for her for a year."

I've had my own "dappled things" that came and went. Which is probably why I resonate with the author's conclusion: "I've always lamented the particular poverty of children raised without pets."

Like the classics, I found myself savoring "Booked," reading it devotionally. Prior's meditations reminded me of my own pilgrimage through life, and the books and authors who have accompanied me along the way. Whether it was Ray Bradbury, igniting my imagination with The Illustrated Man and October Country, Watership Down or The Book of the Dun Cow, Till We Have Faces, Godric, or Chesterton's Orthodoxy, books have served as signposts, if not guideposts, "everyday gifts" that God used "to teach [me] and shape [me], and to help [me] find truth."

Thus far, "Booked" is one of the best books I've read this year. Highly recommended to book lovers, promiscuous readers, and celebrants of "everyday gifts."
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