Vanessa Zoltan is a trailblazer in the spheres of religion as well as literary criticism. A self-proclaimed “atheist Jew” chaplain, she explains in her new book, “Praying With Jane Eyre: Reflections on Reading as a Sacred Practice,” that ritualistic deep analysis of your favorite novels (or even TV shows) can be a form of prayer.
She came to her realization while studying at the Harvard Divinity School and feeling a lack of connection with traditional religious texts. Zoltan wondered if she could forge a similar type of meaning-making from a rigorous analysis of Charlotte Brontë's “Jane Eyre,” working with a mentor and peers to treat one of her favorite books as sacred.
The concept was so successful that Zoltan evolved it into a weekly book club, then a podcast about Harry Potter, and now, a media company. Today, Zoltan is the CEO and founder of Medford-based Not Sorry Productions, which produces literature-meets-spirituality podcasts like “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text” and “The Real Question,” facilitates more than 100 local meet-up groups around the world, and holds a series of international pilgrimages that explore sacred reading and writing.
In her book, Zoltan’s tender and intelligent essays cover themes from hope to heartbreak to obsession, through the lens of real-life experiences, triumphs, and trauma paired with literary quotes and plot analysis. Zoltan also includes a detailed guide for the reader to do the same with their own beloved texts. Each of her essays, she explains, is meant as a sermon. Each time a reader engages with a text as sacred, they’re really engaging in an act of faith — and one of love. In advance of the book’s release this week, we sat down to chat over the phone.
Q. What makes a text sacred?
A. There’s a long tradition of text being sacred because it’s divinely inspired. But the way that we do it, I would argue, is no better or worse — it’s just different. What we’re saying is sacred can be an act, not a thing. That it’s the relationship between you and the text that makes it sacred.
Q. How do you create that relationship?
A. We have four levels of criteria for a sacred text. The first is a recommendation, that you should love it. Living in a sacred relationship with a text is an arduous process, so it’s best to do it with something you are predisposed to love. Then there’s faith, rigor, and community. Faith means you believe the more time you spend with the text, the more gifts it will give you — even if it sometimes frustrates or disappoints you. Rigor means a commitment that every day for five minutes you read your text. The last is community. It’s not necessary, but it deepens the relationship between you and the text. It’s like having a gym buddy.
Q. Why did you decide to focus this book on “Jane Eyre”?
A. In my childhood, my mom kept telling me I was too young for “Jane Eyre,” so when she finally gave it to me for my 14th birthday, I couldn’t wait to read it. In Judaism, we would say “beshert” — Jane and I were meant to be. Or, as Rochester would say, it was meant to be my “best earthly companion.” I read it again in college and in my mid 20s, and I haven’t put it down since. It enchanted me.
Q. I loved it, but it’s been a while since I read it. What about it is so continually enchanting?
A. It’s a book that is messy enough that it can meet you wherever you are in your life. I used to think it was a book about true love — Rochester and Jane can hear each other’s voices across hundreds of miles. But now I see it as a book that’s entirely about resistance. The start of chapter two is, “I resisted all the way.” It’s passionate enough and weird enough that you can have this complicated conversation with it.
Q. I was intrigued by the practices you described that can be considered treating a text as sacred — particularly florilegia and marginalia. I’ve been doing these things since I was a kid.
A. Yes! Many readers have probably kept a quote journal. That’s called florilegia and it’s a medieval Christian practice that’s typically done with the Psalms. You write down “sparklets” — phrases, words, sentences that sparkle up at you. When you’re done, you read your own florilegia journal. Then you start over again. Marginalia is taking seriously what is written in the margins of your book, which many readers do — where you underlined or wrote an exclamation point or a “wow!” That’s also a codified Christian practice from the Middle Ages.
Q. The book includes serious considerations of your Jewish history and ancestry, and the fact that all four of your grandparents were in the Holocaust. How did you decide how to approach that?
A. The whole book is an attempt to address my grandparents’ stories and the stories of people who died in the Holocaust. That group are victims of genocide. To a large extent, we are all inheritors of trauma. I think it’s important to resist the meaning-making of trauma. I don’t believe that the poor shall inherit the earth; I believe that we should have no poor people. I don’t like glorifying suffering.
The way for me to look directly at the horrors that they went through was through “Jane Eyre.” It’s like a solar eclipse — it’s too strong to look directly at it. If I actually contemplated what they went through, I think it would so thoroughly devastate me, and it would be futile. And so I have to look at it through one of those cut-out things for an eclipse — the cardboard cutout for me is “Jane Eyre.”
Q. Your book made me think about the necessity of deeper reading, instead of quickly finishing a book and shelving it. How do you recommend pursuing that on an individual level?
A. The place to start is to give yourself permission to re-read. Sometimes we treat books like trophies — I know I do. We’ll say, “I’ve read this many books this year! Look at my shelf!” But, it’s OK to spend time re-reading one book, and having faith that that time you are spending with the book is a gift. Also, when you’re in distress, turn to the book.
Q. Do people do that often when they’re distressed?
A. Certainly with the Harry Potter books. I’ve met so many people — one says every year on the anniversary of their father’s death they reread “Prisoner of Azkaban,” where Harry thinks he sees his father. It’s not only OK, it’s important to do that. You can ask the books to make you braver and better at loving.
Q. I’m interested in definitions here — we’re looking at texts in a loving and humanistic way, but also we’re talking about praying. So, what is praying?
A. It’s so many things. Right now I’ll say that praying is talking to something that you don’t know and asking for help. I may have a different answer in five minutes.
Interview was edited and condensed. Gina Tomaine can be reached at Gina.Tomaine@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @gtomaine.