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Soul Lessons from the Literary Classics

Soul Lessons from the Literary Classics


Dec 6 2012
Two of Her.meneutics' book nerds discuss 'Madame Bovary' and other books featured in Karen Swallow Prior's new memoir.

When Karen Swallow Prior and I identify as book nerds, we're delighted to claim the moniker. When we chat (usually online), she and I use the kind of literary shorthand common among former English majors. Say one of us is deriding a sloppy political argument. One of us might warn: "A little learning is a dangerous thing," to which the other might reply, "I love it when you talk Alexander Pope to me."

So when I read Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (T. S. Poetry Press), Prior's new memoir that arranges key moments in her life around great works of literature, I felt like I was having a satisfying conversation with a longtime friend.

For the following conversation, Prior and I chose passages from three of the books explored in Booked as springboards for reflections: on the American Dream, on isolation, and on the gifts of ordinary life.

Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert (published 1856)

"I have come to love stories that move breathlessly along, that frighten one. I detest commonplace heroes and moderate feelings, as one finds them in nature."

Grant: As a prolific reader and writer, do you ever find ordinary life and people tiresome, as Madame Bovary does?

Prior: Madame Bovary cured me of romanticism. Truly. I did not realize until I read the novel that I was, like Emma, prone to mistaking art for life, an error that inevitably leads to disappointment in the day-to-day real world. That confusion—between art and life—is all around us.

By God's grace, I can't say I ever do tire of ordinary life and ordinary people. The things I find richest and most satisfying are things like a good book, funny friends, a clean home, work well done, happy dogs and chickens, and a content husband. And a book that took years to write finally complete.

What makes you breathless in your regular, ordinary life?

I run miles nearly every day. That makes me breathless, but not only in the obvious way. The beauty of the changing seasons, the deer and rabbits I encounter, the sunlight, the occasional snake or snappy dog, the feeling of my body working and my mind at ease—these make me breathless.

Has a work of art left you "breathless" recently?

The Tree of Life, a film released last year, left me in awe and in a spirit of worship every time I saw it.

Do women in our culture err on the side of fantasy, like Madame Bovary, or banality - perhaps like her husband, Charles? And what might the success of Fifty Shades of Grey have to do with this?

I've not read Fifty Shades of Grey, but from the reviews and reactions I've seen, it seems like it is just a 21st-century version of the Harlequin Romances: high on fantasy, low on real life. I think banality and fantasy are two sides of the same coin. Those seeking fantasy and not finding it will find banality in its place (as Emma Bovary did).

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Soul Lessons from the Literary Classics