We are all formed by stories.
“Read promiscuously.” Unorthodox counsel from a 17th century Puritan. Yet such was John Milton’s advice to fellow churchmen. Milton believed that Christians should not censor books with which they disagreed, but should trust the power of truth to triumph. Indiscriminate reading would, he argued in Areopagitica, cultivate maturity.
Milton’s order forms the backdrop for Karen Swallow Prior’s recent memoir Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me. Prior draws on her background as an English professor at Liberty University to reflect on the range of narratives that have most deeply formed her. This diversity of narratives points to the fact that all words and stories spring from the “God who spoke the world into existence with words” (11). And as such, they are not merely entertainment. Stories create a reality that we can then inhabit, a space where we feel the glorious or disastrous consequences of the characters’ choices. We emerge from this space irrevocably changed. But these changes only occur by the committing of our time and the developing of our taste – by reading.
With the disarming genius of a storyteller, Prior launches no apologetic for reading fiction; she merely beckons us into her journey. We find ourselves in the musty hayloft of her grandparents’ barn, remembering wistful childish longings for a horse, and swept into the narrative of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. A spider saves a pig’s life from a ham-and-bacon fate by the words she writes about him in her web. And just as Wilbur becomes the “terrific,” “radiant” pig Charlotte calls him, Prior muses on how language shapes identity. Giving something its proper name “empowers it to become the name it is called,” she explains (42).
Prior’s story grows more raw as she moves into fumbling adolescence. In eighth grade, she was expelled from The Group and took the walk of shame across school to join the Smart Girls for lunch. Although rejection stings, she recognizes that embracing her intelligence and entering another group brought freedom.
Prior found a predecessor for choosing individuality in the protagonist of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “Pied Beauty” was another voice of hope for Prior. She describes her teenage despair perusing a Sears catalogue and realizing that her body resembled the “pretty plus” models at the back rather than the models filling the rest of its pages. Hopkins counters the fashion industry with a different narrative of beauty. With its clumsy rhythm and odd word choice, “Pied Beauty” celebrates beauty erupting from the unexpected and imperfect – from freckled, wrinkled, splotched humans.
Not all of Prior’s stories bespeak hope – a reminder that our reading lists need not suit Pollyanna to be worthwhile pursuits in personal and moral formation. Some important stories pulse with flashing red letters. “Danger!” “Do not enter!” Or to borrow from Dante’s vision of hell, “Abandon hope, all ye that enter here.” Prior describes reading Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman as a college freshman, stuck between the dreaded statistics of her social work major and a burgeoning love of literature. The play traces the final years of a salesman, Willy, who chooses his vocation based on his consumerist culture rather than his skill set: working with his hands. Unsuccessful in his work as a salesman but too proud to confess failure to his family, Willy loses his job and, shortly after, his life. Heeding Willy’s mistakes, Prior abandoned statistics and chose instead to major in English.
From Prior’s personal vignettes, a case for promiscuous reading emerges. Stories form us. Some are beacons, with protagonists who propel us into greater freedom or a fresh view of the world. Others are cautionary, steering us away from a lifestyle as we vicariously experience its mistakes. Many do both. Prior’s genius lies in making this point not through argument, but through story. She weaves her chronology together with the fiction of Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, and Jonathan Swift, and in this way, we are invited in. We are invited to consider how our own stories take shape within this double helix, as characters in our own stories who understand ourselves through the characters we read. We remember the nicknames that shaped our sense of self, our angst in the school cafeteria, our anxiety in the college major quest. The act of remembering is an act of revelation, of re-formation. So too, the act of reading.
Like Prior, we are all formed by stories. Through stories, we cultivate language, desire, and identity. And through stories, we see God in glimmering, indistinct ways. Prior likens this interaction to the Exodus narrative where Moses begs to see God. God hides Moses in the cleft of a rock and then passes by. The rock shelters Moses from the fullness of God’s glory, while still allowing him to catch a glimpse.
Like Moses’ rock of protection, stories shelter us from visions of God that might blind us while still offering us hints. We too can see God’s glory by following in the footsteps of Prior and her 17th century counterpart, Milton – by reading promiscuously.
Elisabeth McClanahan is a South Carolina native, recently migrated to the Eastern Shore of Maryland via the mountains of Tennessee. She is a resident of the Trinity Fellows Academy, a nine-month post-undergrad fellowship, where she is exploring the way stories form us and offer the potential for healing.