Thoughts on Praying With Jane Eyre

On being the wrong reader for a book

warning: flashing gif at the end

While I was in Tennessee last I read nine books, and I said last week that I’d talk about one of them: Vanessa Zoltan’s Praying With Jane Eyre: Reading as a Sacred Practice. I’ve been trying to think about what to say about this book ever since I decided to write about it, and here we are, Friday morning and I’m still not quite sure. My struggle is threefold: first, I don’t think I read the blurb carefully enough and expected a different book than it is; second, my personal beliefs clashed quite a bit with the author’s; third, the book is generally well written, and does have some interesting nuggets about engaging with works we find precious.

To go back a little bit. Vanessa Zoltan is an atheist chaplain with an MDiv from Harvard Divinity, and the host of a popular podcast called Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. (I have not listened to the podcast, but friends of mine have.) A lot of her work is about engaging with secular books as a sacred practice, and that’s the gist of Praying. Here’s the cover copy, from the publisher:

Our favorite books keep us company, give us hope, and help us find meaning in a chaotic world. In this fresh and relatable work, atheist chaplain Vanessa Zoltan blends memoir and personal growth as she grapples with the notions of family legacy and identity through the lens of her favorite novel, Jane Eyre. Informed by the reading practices of medieval monks and rabbinic scholars from her training at the Harvard Divinity School and filtered through the pages of Jane Eyre as well as Little WomenHarry Potter, and The Great Gatsby, Zoltan explores topics ranging from the trauma she has inherited as the granddaughter of four Holocaust survivors to finding hope, meaning, and even magic in our deeply fractured times. Brimming with a lifelong love of classic literature and the tenderness of self-reflection, the book also reveals simple techniques for reading any work as a sacred text–from Virginia Woolf to Anne of Green Gables to baseball scorecards.

I should have paid more attention to the bolded portion - this is more a memoir than anything else, and the “sacred text” aspect spent a lot of time dealing with Jane Eyre’s more problematic aspects before coming around to “this book is kinda racist and bonkers, and it’s wild that I devoted so much time to it.” (My words, not hers.) Which felt like: well, duh. It’s a good idea to be cognizant of the problematic facets of books that we read and loved and didn’t understand the historical context of til later; I don’t ever think it’s worthwhile or healthy to hold works up as Oh No This Is Perfect, And I Will Accept No Criticism. Books are a product of the time, culture, and persons that create them, and no person is perfect! And to devote a whole book to something I covered in ENG 202: VICTORIAN LIT & CULTURE my sophomore year —that sometimes books considered classic have aspects of them that are racist and that it’s OK to feel a way about them— felt facile.

But my problem isn’t the book, it’s me, really. Reading experiences are also the product of the time, culture, and person reading them, and I’m bringing to the table my identity as cradle Episcopalian and the subsequent difficulty I had engaging with her atheism in the way she presents it on the page. Going in, I wanted a broader engagement with the idea that sacredness is what we make it, but instead I encountered a deeply personal series of essays that were about Jane Eyre and the author’s own family trauma and struggles with depression. Zoltan is frank and eloquent about how the experience of growing up with four Holocaust survivor grandparents turned her away from even the idea of religion:

“The truth was my that my parents couldn’t help it. The Holocaust, in all its vast complexity, was their home country. Its economy defined them, its laws resettled them, and its language was the base that they were always transforming from. So even though I was born nearly forty years after its end, the Holocaust is my nationality.” 

Later, she says “I wonder if part of my depression is knowing that my existence hinges on such a horrible thing having happened. How can you be grateful for a life that was ill-gotten gains? I am the fruit of the poisonous tree.” I found it uncomfortable to consider that she framed her existence in this way—obviously I can’t speak to the experience of growing up with that family history, but nonetheless, that idea bummed me tf out.

So, OK, given that I still can’t work through my own feelings about the memoir part of Praying With Jane Eyre, and found most of the Jane Eyre-specific material underwhelming, what can I take away from the sacred text aspect? Her thesis on this front is simple: “if one treats Jane Eyre as a doorstop, it is a doorstop. If one treats it as sacred, then it can be sacred.” The idea is to find meaning and sacredness outside of the enjoyment of the text itself. Which is interesting! According to Zoltan, you need three things to treat a text as sacred: “faith, rigor, and community.” Rigor and community are fairly self-explanatory, but I found her definition of faith very compelling: basically, you have to believe that the more time you spend with the text, the more gifts it gives you.

Not to bring Doomsday Book into things again (I can hear your groans from here! Your chagrin nourishes me!) but as I finished rereading it earlier this week, I found myself living through this idea. I found parallels to our current time that I hadn’t noticed before. I found new feelings towards the characters, especially Lady Imeyne and her performative piety, and Mr. Dunworthy and his anxiety about Kivrin. And poor Badri, woof. Time spent with a text we have read and loved already is rarely wasted, whether we read it for stimulation or comfort or the voice of a familiar friend.

I’ll close out this week by giving describing two of the techniques Zoltan lists at the end of the book for engaging with your own sacred texts.

  • florilegia: latin for “gathering flowers.” As you read, if you come across a sentence that particularly pleases you/says something to you, write it down without annotating where it’s from. Later, read through this collection as though it was its own text. Do this every time you read the original work.

  • Havruta: an act of pair study rooted in the yeshiva tradition, in which students sit in pairs with nothing but the Talmud between them. Find a person to share a text with, and one of you bring a question about the text to the other. But the person who brings the question also has to bring an answer. In the next step, person B listens to the question and the answer, then gives their own response, and then asks a question inspired by the first one and provides an answer to begin the conversation

HOUSEKEEPING

Do you have a question about writing, publishing, books? Is there something you want covered in this newsletter? Do you have a burning desire to hear my thoughts on the Vegas Golden Knights’ absolutely abominable treatment of Marc-André Fleury? Leave it in the comments or in a reply to the newsletter!

THIS WEEK IN HOCKEY 

This week Choices Were Made all around the league. The Canes acquired a racist. The Habs drafted an accused sexual predator. The Caps re-acquired the goalie they lost last week to the Kraken. The Knights traded Marc-André Fleury to Chicago, of all places, and he found out about it through social media. Their flagship player! Traded! To Chicago! WYD, Vegas? (Come to think of it, a lot of the trade shenanigans were goalie-related; Civil War Husband Braden Holtby will be a Dallas Star for a year, and Frederik Andersen is going to be a Hurricane, much to Auston Matthews’ chagrin.)

LINKS

The Superhumanity of Simone Biles by Will Leitch (Intelligencer)
The pressure was unfathomable. Biles had to be the public face of an organization, U.S.A. Gymnastics, that had failed hundreds of abused gymnasts and to be the face of public criticism of that organization. (Anyone attempting to compare her trouble today to Kerri Strug’s famous dismount from the vault in 1996 with an injured ankle should remember where coaches were carrying her when she landed: toward Larry Nassar.) Biles was also, of course, recovering from that abuse herself. And she had to do it on the grandest platform on the planet, competing against, and alongside, the best athletes her sport has ever produced, in an Olympics that is happening during a pandemic, an Olympics no one is exactly sure should have happened in the first place. The wonder is not that Biles was unable to perform. The wonder is that she made it this far at all.

A People’s History of Black Twitter by Jason Parham (Wired)
Though Twitter launched exactly 15 years ago today, with the goal of changing how—and how quickly—people communicate online, the ingenious use of the platform by Black users can be traced, in a way, much further back in time. In 1970, when the computer revolution was in its infancy, Amiri Baraka, the founder of the Black Arts Movement, published an essay called “Technology & Ethos.” “How do you communicate with the great masses of Black people?” he asked. “What is our spirit, what will it project? What machines will it produce? What will they achieve?”

The Feds Seized An Ancient Tablet (?) From Hobby Lobby (??) And Also Sold A One-Of-A-Kind Wu-Tang Clan Album (???) by Paige Skinner (Buzzfeed News)
In a bizarre day for the Department of Justice, federal officials on Tuesday announced they had sold a one-of-a-kind Wu-Tang Clan album forfeited by an infamous "Pharma Bro" and also seized an ancient tablet from the deeply religious arts and crafts retailer Hobby Lobby.

LINKS, REDUX

‘Jerry-built’ vs ‘Jury-rigged’ vs ‘Jerry-rigged’ | The Time Tax | Dirtbag Catullus | Dolly Parton shares support for Britney Spears | Have you or anyone you loved been injured in an accident? | A thread on why international shipping is so expensive rn | Ryan Adams is Not Doing Well

READING: To Say Nothing of the Dog or: How We Found the Bishop’s Bird Stump At Last by Connie Willis 
LISTENING: 
“We are Between” by Modest Mouse
WATCHING: 
Upstart Crow

This has been A Faster No, a dispatch on publishing, writing, books, and beyond. Is there something you’d like me to talk about? Leave it in the comments or reply to the email! You can support the newsletter here. If you purchase a book from any of the links to Bookshop.org I get a small commission at no cost to you. I am available for developmental editing and editorial assessment services via Reedsy.