A Better Introduction: Karen Swallow Prior Is a Literary Guide For All Readers

"Heart of Darkness" & "Sense and Sensibility" | Karen Swallow Prior | B&H Books

In 1944 C. S. Lewis wrote the introduction to a new translation of Athanasius’ De Incarnatione and remarked upon the prevalence of a “strange idea” that old books—his broad term for the classics—“should be read only by the professionals,” while “amateur” readers confine themselves to new or “modern” books. His claim is no less true today. If anything has changed between then and now, it is only the number of books to which Lewis’ words apply. Classic literature that seemed relatively approachable in the forties now appears more alien, and some books that were relatively new to Lewis have themselves lately attained to the rank of “classic.” The perceived difficulty of many classics has given rise to the convention of attaching lengthy critical introductions to them. And while these introductions can save the intimidated reader from having to go it alone, at their best they tend to read literature through lenses that presuppose secularism or moral relativism. At their worst, they are the product of an increasingly defunct Academy telling readers what to think about a book instead of showing them how to think about it.

Karen Swallow Prior aims to buck that trend in a new series of classic literature from B&H Books. Beginning with Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (more titles—FrankensteinJane Eyre, et al.—to follow), the series presents each eminent work along with Prior’s succinct introduction and a series of “reflection questions.”

Prior carefully ameliorates a number of the typical introduction’s worst sins by refraining from discussion of the plot’s conclusion (no spoilers here!), and sparing the reader her own prepared interpretation of the work. Instead, she offers just enough technical and contextual information to prepare the reader to interpret for themselves. In this she has to thread a very small needle: serving both first-time and repeat readers, the literarily literate and the uninitiated. Somehow she manages, explaining concepts like existentialism, free indirect discourse, or the history of exploitative European colonialism in a way that is neither patronizing to the novice nor boring to the veteran—all in the space of a few paragraphs. These few specialized explanations aside, Prior’s tone in her introductions seems designed to persuade readers that the great man or woman they’re about to encounter is eminently approachable and intelligible, with something meaningful to offer any reader willing to pay attention.

If you like this review, you’ll love what a full subscription gets you: Access to digital versions of the content in our quarterly print journal, plus extra reviews to great books worth noticing. Subscribe now for 50% off!

Get 50% off forever

“Why does Marlow dwell on the ‘eloquence’ of Kurtz’s writing?” “Do we ever really learn why Elinor loves Edward?” Prior’s questions are typically open-ended, directing attention back to the text of the book and encouraging nuanced contemplation rather than driving at a narrow “answer.” Even the more pointed questions (“What are the first words spoken in the story? Whose words are they?”) serve to make the reader observe what is actually written on the page as a precursor to making inferences and passing judgments. Anyone who spends their days teaching literature to young people knows how valuable this step is in the reading process, and how often overlooked.

While her publisher is marketing the series as aids in reading great literature “as a Christian,” Prior never asks these books to be more Christian than they are. John Henry Newman warned that it was folly to expect “a sinless literature from sinful man,” and Prior wisely obeys. No book is asked to become the Bible, no character required to become a Christ. Instead, she implicitly articulates a Christian mode of reading that can approach any work of literature on its own terms, as a testament to the nature of man, the world, and their maker. Those appreciative of her book On Reading Well will recognize the same attempt to read great books with a virtue ethic in view, invoking the gospel for the sake of comparison and highlighting both imitable examples of virtue and cautionary models of vice. For Prior, reading as a Christian is not to make every book Christian, but to take every thought about any book captive to the mind of Christ.

The books themselves are lovely—cloth-covered hardbacks with sewn bindings and tasteful embellishments. They even sport ribbon bookmarks. The internal text of the Conrad volume is noticeably oversized, but perhaps that’s just for ease of reading in the low-light conditions of a Congo river cruise? On the shelf they’ll strike a happy and temperate mean between casual Penguins and the garish pleather-bound Barnes & Noble numbers. Finally, they simply feel good in the hand. This last feature should dovetail nicely with the chief aim of these editions—that an increasing number of Christians will make ample time to read and reflect upon great literature. Prior is never pushy in that enterprise, but she offers a sturdy walking stick and a full canteen, followed by a firm, friendly nudge onto the path of thoughtful reading.

Sean Johnson is an associate editor of the FORMA Journal and the FORMA Review. He teaches humanities at Trinitas Christian School in Pensacola, Florida.

If you enjoyed this review, be sure to subscribe to the quarterly print edition of FORMA Journal.