We are so excited to have with us author, writer and professor Karen Swallow Prior. Today, she shares with us a bit about her life, ideas for how to get back into books and reading well in a digital age, and all about her two new releases, literature guides to Jane Eyre and Frankenstein (out March 9, 2021). Literature lovers unite! (There are many of you, based on our recent stories poll). You don’t want to miss this! A special thanks to our friend Ms. White at B&H Publishing who worked hard to make this interview possible.
Modern Witnesses (“MW”): Thank you for being here with us today. I am so excited. Your books and the concept behind the guides are something I am intrigued by, as I myself am a fan of classic literature. This is really unique. We have never had or featured anything like this, so I am just so excited to bring this to the community. This is unique because it marries secular classic literature to a faith lens. You are a professor and a reader. When did you first fall in love with literature?
Karen Swallow Prior (“KSP”): Well, my mother read to me when I was a very small child, and I remember that by the time I was five years old, I was in love with books. I was reading all the time. I created a little library in my basement and made my friends check out books, whether they wanted to or not, *laughs* and by the time I was a little bit older, in middle school-high school, I always had my nose in a book.
MW: When did you come to know Christ on your journey? Was He always present?
KSP: I was raised in a Christian home, and I don’t remember when I prayed the sinner’s prayer to receive Christ. I do remember, at about five years of age when my family moved, I remember praying in my new bedroom, in my new home, in my new town, just that the Lord would be with me in that transition. I remember knowing in that prayer, already, that He was my Lord and Savior and that I trusted Him, and so it’s just always been that way.
MW: How has your faith impacted how you approach literature?
KSP: Well, it didn’t always impact the way I approach literature. I kind of saw my faith and my love of books as separate things. When I went to college and became an English major, I never really connected them, and it wasn’t until I was introduced to something called Christian Worldview or Biblical Worldview that I learned that you can connect these things and that you can think about all things in creation through a biblical lens. So, I began to do that when I was in the middle of my PhD program, on my way to becoming a professor. I hadn’t figured that out until then. I had to teach myself how to think about literature from a Christian perspective. I loved it [literature] before that, and that made me love it even more because I realized that my love of literature and words and language is really a reflection of who God is and His nature, as a Creator and someone who is the Word and brought creation into existence through the word. All of our little words are just reflections of that.
“I realized that my love of literature and words and language is really a reflection of who God is and His nature, as a Creator and someone who is the Word and brought creation into existence through the word. All of our little words are just reflections of that.”
MW: You have dedicated several of your books to being classical literature guides. You wrote some on Sense and Sensibility and Heart of Darkness. On March 9, you are releasing two more guides to classical literature, Frankenstein and Jane Eyre. What inspired you to embark on these projects, and why do you believe it’s important for adults to revisit classical literature in this way?
KSP: I had written two books about books, and then, my publisher, B&H, which is with the Southern Baptist Convention, my denomination, they are the ones who approached me with this idea of publishing new editions of the works that would be in beautiful volumes, with introductions and guides that I write. It was my publisher’s idea, and it is a great idea because so many of these books are in the public domain. There are lots of versions of them, but there really was nothing that was written by a Christian for Christians about these works. It’s just a great honor to be able to use my passion and gift for literature for the church.
MW: Why did you choose these books for guides? Or did you choose these books– I am assuming you chose them? Does one have a particularly special or unique meaning to you?
KSP: I did choose them. We did start with books that are in the public domain. That means nothing that has been published within the last 75 years can be used, so that eliminates a lot, and my specialty is the British novel. I do try to stay within my specialty, though I have learned to love and read other things. I tried to choose works that I thought would appeal to a broad audience– not just Christians but also non-Christians. For example, I knew I was going to do something with Jane Austen. Anyone who loves Jane Austen has probably read Pride and Prejudice, and I thought, I will choose a work that is less known and less popular. Sense and Sensibility seemed like a work that really is needed for us today because the whole novel is about the way we put reason and emotion against one another, when really, to be fully human and thriving, we need both. We need to use reason and not be overwhelmed by emotion, but also, God gave us emotions. We need to not try to suppress them and be completely rational because that just makes us into machines. I think that is something we still struggle with today, and that is something Austen was writing about. You know, we need to employ both reason and emotion or sense and sensibility. In general, I chose pairs that complement one another. I think some people look at some classic works of literature like Jane Eyre and Sense and Sensibility and think those are novels for girls or for women. That is not true, but they might not be interested in reading them, so something like Heart of Darkness and Frankenstein lets my readers know I am covering a wide range of literature. Everyone should read these books, male or female.
“We need to use reason and not be overwhelmed by emotion, but also, God gave us emotions. We need to not try to suppress them and be completely rational because that just makes us into machines. I think that is something we still struggle with today, and that is something Austen was writing about.”
MW: What book shaped you the most in your youth?
KSP: The book that influenced me the most was one that I read my sophomore year of college. It is Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. It’s a story, I don’t want to give too much away— a story of adultery and worse, but it’s not just about those things. It’s really about the way having an overly idealized or romanticized worldview can actually distort our thinking and destroy lives. When I read that novel as a teenager and a young woman, I thought, Oh, I am a lot like this. Oh, I can be overly romantic and have a distorted sense of reality that robs me from loving life as it really is as opposed to how I think it should be. And so, it just greatly influenced my thinking at a vulnerable time of life, and now I am very anti-romantic, so I can thank Flaubert.
“It’s really about the way having an overly idealized or romanticized worldview can actually distort our thinking and destroy lives.”
MW: If our readers haven’t touched a classic lit book since high school or college and they want to dive back into the pool, what guide would you recommend they start off with?
KSP: Well, there are my books in this series. They have introductions that have no spoilers, and then discussion questions and light footnotes to help overcome hard words and archaic terms. Then, there are other books out there like How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas Foster, which is a good book to start with. I would say it’s helpful to join a book club or listen to a podcast. A lot of those have been springing up. I think there is a desire to return to classic literature in this digital age where we are so inundated with our social media and spend so much time on screens. I think more people are looking for the joy of holding a book and getting lost in a world of imagination, and so in both On Reading Well and in these guides, I do help readers. I think reading in community; being part of a book club, even if it’s just online or with a few friends, can really help you kind of grapple with books. Good books, even if you love them, you know, we want to talk about them. So even if we love them and think we understand them, they are worth talking about with friends. And if we don’t understand them, it’s even more worth it. Just like watching a great film. When we watch a great movie, we want to watch it with people and talk about it afterwards.
MW: Do you belong to a book club?
KSP: Before COVID, I was running a book club with my church. We did Sense and Sensibility, actually. I want to pick that up once we are all vaccinated and safe. I do participate in a podcast called the Close Reads Podcast. I am a guest on it, so I am not the regular host, but they have many, many books that they cover, and I am also a member of a couple different Facebook groups that have book club discussions. There are lots of ways to talk about books with people.
MW: I love that.
KSP: It’s also a good thing for churches to do. To have a book club centered on a work of classical literature, not only for the church members but also as an outreach to the community. It’s also a way of modeling the way we as Christians think about these big questions and big issues great works of literature cover.
KSP: When I said that Madame Bovary is the one that influenced me the most, Jane Eyre is probably the book I love the most. I mean it’s hard for me to choose, but Jane Eyre is the book I have probably read the most, interacted with the most and written about the most. I love that book because it has a little bit of everything. It has the romanticism; it has the realism; it has an exciting plot, but it has flawed characters. So, it’s a little bit of everything, but really, it’s a wonderful allegory of the human soul and in particular the Christian soul in search of an authentic sense of self and belonging in the world. It’s a book that everyone should be able to read and relate to, even if they are nothing like the character of Jane Eyre or their life is nothing like hers. That’s what I like about that book.
Frankenstein is actually a romantic novel. It’s written in the romantic period, capital R. I don’t like romanticism, but I still love Frankenstein because Shelley is so honest and searching. She lives the wildest most romantic life in the negative respect because she and her husband, they abandoned traditional institutions and values, yet you can see she is not happy with that and was questioning it. So Frankenstein, the story of this creator who creates this creature that he abandons, is in many ways asking the question about our own God and our own status as creations. Was God irresponsible to create us and is God like the creator in this book? There are just so many questions Shelley asks about her own life and her own values that it presents a model for us to ask similar questions about the things we assume about our own life and beliefs.
“So, it’s a little bit of everything, but really, it’s a wonderful allegory of the human soul and in particular the Christian soul in search of an authentic sense of self and belonging in the world.”
MW: I’ve never seen Frankenstein in that way. I need to look at your introduction and the notes. Can we count on guides to additional titles, or will these complete your series?
KSP: There will be six total. So, Sense and Sensibility and Heart of Darkness are out. Jane Eyre and Frankenstein are on their way. Next year, we’ll have The Scarlet Letter and Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
KSP: One American novel in there to represent, I guess. *laughter* I think I have a #MeToo #ChurchToo theme kind of thing running there. Especially with those two that are about, in different ways, sexual abuse and how society responds to it, and so I think those two books have some important things to say to us today.
MW: Who is your favorite author? Can be classic lit or not…
KSP: Just one, huh?
MW: I know; it’s so hard.
MW: Or top five or top three, if it makes it easier…
KSP: All right, so Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and Jonathan Swift. Four.
MW: Who is your favorite person in Scripture?
KSP: The writer of Ecclesiastes. Does that count as a character?
KSP: I just love his questioning, his wrestling, you know, contradictions and synthesis.
MW: What are you currently reading, and what has it taught you?
KSP: I am doing a lot of reading for research. This is for research but sort of for me. I am reading George Saunders’ new book A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. It’s similar to the kinds of books I write. He is teaching writing students through it, and he is teaching them through various Russian short stories. The short stories are in the book, and he talks about them. The short stories are wonderful, and George Saunders is amazing, and so I am just loving the book.
MW: Gonna add that to my list. We are a global community, and we love exploring traditions. Is there a special tradition you and your family engage in or keep?
KSP: Well, I am not a super traditional or sentimental person, but I think I am more about rituals. I love daily rituals. I love doing the same thing every day. I get up in the morning; I go do barn chores. I stop and see my elderly parents because we built them a home on our land, and so I stop in and see them, and then, I have breakfast. If I am traveling or something else happens, I can’t do that, but especially this past year, I have been able to do this about every day, and of course, having dogs who love ritual and routine, as well, reinforces that. They don’t like to have their routine disrupted. I love the rhythms of daily life. I love having that and returning to it when it’s interrupted.
“I love the rhythms of daily life.”
MW: That sounds really peaceful, being in nature. I am from a really rural part of Florida, and I miss that. Here is a question I love to ask most of our friends who share with us. If you had to define Christianity in one sentence, it would be:
KSP: Christianity is believing in Jesus Christ who is God and is Lord of the universe and Savior of your soul.
MW: I have loved our time together. I can think of a million other questions, but I want to be respectful of your time. Thank you for taking the time to share with us. I hope people will grab one of your guides and dive back into literature. I look forward to seeing other projects you will do. I appreciate following you. Everything you put out there contributes value. The honor is ours.
Make sure to follow KSP through the links below:
Karen Swallow Prior is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (T. S. Poetry Press, 2012), Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (Thomas Nelson, 2014), and On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Literature (Brazos 2018). She is co-editor of Cultural Engagement: A Crash Course in Contemporary Issues (Zondervan 2019) and has contributed to numerous other books. Her writing has appeared at Christianity Today, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, First Things, Vox, Relevant, Think Christian, The Gospel Coalition, Religion News Service, Books and Culture and other places. She is a founding member of The Pelican Project, a Senior Fellow at the Trinity Forum, a Senior Fellow at the International Alliance for Christian Education, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States.