Review of "Walking a Literary Labyrinth"

By Nancy M. Malone
Riverhead Books, 2003
Review by Tony O'Brien, M. Phil. on Feb 1st 2005
Walking a Literary Labyrinth

If you love reading, you'll love this book. Nancy Malone, a Roman Catholic nun in the Ursuline order, has written an account of how our identities are shaped by the books we read, and of how reading serves the spiritual need for reflection, wonder, and communion. Walking a Literary Labyrinth is part biography, part memoir, part essay, as Malone explores her own reading and spiritual life, and her personal crises, including spiritual doubt, tuberculosis, and addiction to alcohol. Malone likens reading to prayer and meditation. Anyone with experience of either will recognize the experience of being lost in a story, whether provided by a prayer like the rosary or by the attempt to suspend narrative altogether in a search for oneness. Reading, according to Malone, provides a similar experience.

The story of reading is a remarkable one indeed. The practice of reading aloud, common up until the period of scholasticism, meant that the reader had little opportunity to reflect while reading. Silent reading, famously remarked on by St Augustine, introduced a new interiority to readers, and it is this capacity of reading to direct our inner lives that is the focus of Malone's book. The book is structured to follow the trajectory of Malone's life. At each stage we hear of her literary influences and how they interacted with the events of her life.

From her adolescent experience of boys, smoking, and drinking, her entry to the convent, and later emergence as a literary scholar, her illness, addictions and recovery, Malone's life is charted by books. Whether it is the Nancy Drew mysteries, the romance of Scott Fitzgerald, the prescribed tomes of the convent or the biographies, novels and non-fiction works she consumed voraciously as an adult, books are both the milestones and inspiration of Malone's life.

Malone joined the Ursuline order in 1953, as a 21-year-old. For an inquisitive and rebellious young woman the privations of convent life seem enormous. Prior to Vatican II Roman Catholic teachings were unchallenged by the ideas of the Enlightenment. Within the Ursuline cloisters this meant that that any reading of modern or classical fiction, biography or history was proscribed. Yet Malone recounts tenderly the long hours spent listening, reading and rereading works of Catholic doctrine that most of us will never read. She read Thomas A Kempis's Imitation of Christ fourteen times. Once freed from the constraints of prescribed reading Malone made up time. She caught up on the classics of English literature, her regret at having missed out on these works as a younger woman tempered by the greater appreciation of them in her maturity. The period of her addiction is recounted with candor, and it comes as no surprise that the AA 12 step manual, especially its individual stories, was her preferred reading for some time. Through all of this Malone maintained her status as a nun, and is still a practicing Ursuline, taking seminars and retreats on English literature.

One of the memorable concepts of the book is Malone's idea of 'providential reading'; those books that we discover at just the right time in our lives, so much so that we appear to have been guided towards them. Malone gives several examples of her own providential reads, and probably we can all think of books that appeared at just the right time.

I would like to have read Malone's views on the differences between short stories and novels as a means of self-discovery. In her list of recommended reading she mentions Joyce's Dubliners, and refers to Alice Munro's stories, but there are no individual stories or collections recommended in their own right. This is the more surprising given that the short story is often referred to as an American literary form, providing the twenty-minute epiphany that the novel can never provide. Middlemarch, another of Malone's selections requires a two-week retreat by comparison. The short story also seems more suited than the novel to conveying the unanswered question, surely a cause of much spiritual reflection.

Walking a Literary Labyrinth is written in a straightforward and engaging style, like an extended conversation. It is easy to imagine meeting Malone for coffee and having an hour or two slip by immersed in the world of words and their authors. Malone's addition to literature will add pleasure to your reading, and a considerable number of titles to your 'must read' list.


© 2005 Tony O'Brien


Tony O'Brien M Phil., Lecturer, Mental Health Nursing, University of Auckland


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