On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books

On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books

Reading great literature well has the power to cultivate virtue. Great literature increases knowledge of and desire for the good life by showing readers what virtue looks like and where vice leads. It is not just what one reads but how one reads that cultivates virtue. Reading good literature well requires one to practice numerous virtues, such as patience, diligence, and...

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Title:On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books
Author:Karen Swallow Prior
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Edition Language:English

On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books Reviews

  • Laura

    Review originally appeared at

    .

    Only four pages in to Karen Swallow Prior’s masterpiece On Reading Well, I knew I was in trouble. I love reading in lots of genres, but books about the act of reading are my weakness. I love them. I’ve already read Prior’s first book, Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and immediately wanted to be friends with her. I got a big kick out of reading The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs and Lit! by Tony Reinke. I’ve enjoye

    Review originally appeared at

    .

    Only four pages in to Karen Swallow Prior’s masterpiece On Reading Well, I knew I was in trouble. I love reading in lots of genres, but books about the act of reading are my weakness. I love them. I’ve already read Prior’s first book, Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and immediately wanted to be friends with her. I got a big kick out of reading The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs and Lit! by Tony Reinke. I’ve enjoyed several of Leland Ryken’s book about reading. I loved Marilynne Robsinson’s When I Was a Child I Read Books and Sven Bierkerts’ The Gutenberg Elegies and Francis Buechner’s Telling the Truth. All of these books celebrate what I already knew: Reading is the best! And people who read are the best kind of people!

    And I was nodding along to everything she wrote, revelling in her wisdom, until she told me to do the one thing I simply cannot do: read slow. “Speed-reading is not only inferior to deep reading but may bring more harm than benefits” says Prior, because “speed-reading gives you two things that should never mix: superficial knowledge and overconfidence” (17). This is not just another book about reading. This is a book that dares to teach us how to read. Even before the introduction was over, I could tell I had a lot to learn.

    Prior believes literature has the ability to encourage “habits of mind, ways of perceiving, processing, and thinking that cultivate virtue” (26). She then applies this philosophy to twelve different stories (many are novel-length, but there are a few chapters about short stories), showing how we see twelve virtues (or the lack thereof) in action. Her explanation of each virtue weaves together ancient philosophy with contemporary thought, creating helpful distinctions so that we can see the potential pitfalls in each virtue. If this sounds heavy-handed, you’ll have to trust me that it’s not. Prior admires these books and her delight is contagious.

    This book practically demands to be read slowly, and even though I tried to read more slowly than I usually do, I know I would have benefitted from slowing down even more and taking the time to read each of the fictional stories she discusses before reading her chapters on them. I certainly got the most out of chapters on books I knew well. The chapter on Temperance, which is defined as the state of having “one’s appetites…shaped such that one’s very desires are in proper order and proportion”, showcases my favorite novel The Great Gatsby. Even though I’ve read and taught from this book many times, looking at it through the lens of Temperance offered new insights that made me want to read it again. Prior drew a connection between the famous shirt scene and the intemperance of rampant consumerism, noting “Daisy’s ecstatic worship of the shirts reflects a society in which commodities have become god” (65). Perhaps this gives a taste of Prior does so well. In combining the wisdom gained over a lifetime of reading, Prior achieves a three-part harmony between contemporary issues, timeless literature, and Christian philosophy.

    Prior works her way through three categories of virtues: The Cardinal Virtues (Prudence, Temperance, Justice, Courage), The Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope, Love), and The Heavenly Virtues (Chastity, Diligence, Patience, Kindness, Humility). In each chapter, Prior offers case studies in how each virtue helps us to live out James 3:13Open in Logos Bible Software (if available), which serves as the epigraph for this book. “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.”

    When I was preparing to go to college, I assumed that there must be a list out there called “The Classics” and that I should get a head start on reading all of them. Had I ever found such a definitive list, I would have been tempted to read them all just to be able to claim that I was well-read. Karen Swallow Prior’s book, however, redefines what it means to be well-read. It’s less about how much you read and more about how much you gain from what you read. Good stories can and will change your life. I’ve read a lot of books celebrating this, but I can’t think of one I’d recommend more highly than hers.

  • Cindy Rollins

    I knew I would like this book but I was not prepared to truly love it as I did. It was truly a delightful stroll through many past reads. I decided after the first chapter to slow way down and not rush through this one.

    When I got to the next to the last chapter I realized it was about a story by George Saunders which I had not read. Since it was a short story, I downloaded the book immediately and read the story The Tenth of December. I am very happy that Karen introduced me to this story which

    I knew I would like this book but I was not prepared to truly love it as I did. It was truly a delightful stroll through many past reads. I decided after the first chapter to slow way down and not rush through this one.

    When I got to the next to the last chapter I realized it was about a story by George Saunders which I had not read. Since it was a short story, I downloaded the book immediately and read the story The Tenth of December. I am very happy that Karen introduced me to this story which she uses to discuss kindness but I grasped onto for its beautiful way of giving dignity to the painful process of loss of control and death. Something I am very familiar with right now having watched my father decline in a 'nursing home' over the last two years. The sights and sounds and smells or skilled care were at once horrifying and beautiful. They reminded me that it is okay to suffer and it is okay to let others care for us. George Saunders has written a story that captures that.

    On Reading Well was a wonderful romp through many excellent books. I will make my highlights public.

  • Jay

    In her introduction to her latest book, On Reading Well (Brazos Press, 2018), Karen Swallow Prior writes: “Reading well adds to our life . . . in the same way a friendship adds to our life, changing it forever.” Just as we cultivate our circle of friends and acquaintances (with an unfriend, unfollow, block, or mute), so too ought we to cultivate that other great shaper of character: our reading list, known to many as the TBR.

    In an age when our worth - or at least the value of our words - is ofte

    In her introduction to her latest book, On Reading Well (Brazos Press, 2018), Karen Swallow Prior writes: “Reading well adds to our life . . . in the same way a friendship adds to our life, changing it forever.” Just as we cultivate our circle of friends and acquaintances (with an unfriend, unfollow, block, or mute), so too ought we to cultivate that other great shaper of character: our reading list, known to many as the TBR.

    In an age when our worth - or at least the value of our words - is often determined by the number of our online friends, followers, likes, and mentions, it does us well to step back and consider the quality of those friends. The same goes for books. For, as Prior reminds us, “it is not enough to read widely”. How often I myself fall into that trap, constantly checking on my Goodreads Reading Challenge and comparing my own book count to those of my friends!

    Prior immediately challenges the idea of what it means to read well. “The true worth of books is in their words and ideas, not their pristine pages.” Five shelves of books, their covers well-worn and well-loved yet their pages unblemished, stood over me in silent judgment.

    Thus challenged, I took pencil in hand, underlining that sentence. It felt nearly sacreligious. By the end, though, it felt nearly sacramental, as I found myself transformed from a passive observer to Prior’s search to an active participant in a pilgrimage towards - as Prior puts it - finding the good life.

    Those expecting an easily digestible listicle will be sorely disappointed. Drawing not only from her many years as a professor of literature but also from philosophers and theologians such as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and C.S. Lewis, Prior plays the Virgil to our Dante, guiding us through the twelve cardinal, theological, and heavenly virtues. Here, however, the whips and reigns that would compel us toward virtuous living are not Christian examples, per se, but rather works of classic literature. On Reading Well is to be savored.

    That is not to say Prior’s writing is needlessly heavy. At times it is, as she challenges us to re-examine our self-perception and what we mean by “living the good life”. And yet, Prior is also personal, giving us brief glimpses into her private life and the thoughts, feelings, and emotions that go with it. She is practical without being partisan as she touches on American politics, both religious and secular. Prior is witty. She is not funny for funniness’ sake, but rather uses humor to effectively prove her point. Perhaps the most common lie told online is “lol”, but I genuinely laughed out loud when I saw F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as the novel chosen for “Temperance”.

    Though each of Prior’s twelve chapters could stand on their own as a short essay, together they form a cohesive, powerful whole. Like the pages of an atlas or road map, On Reading Well directs us, through examining individual virtues, to our ultimate purpose: to love God and worship Him forever, “the Love that moves the sun and other stars”.

  • Michele Morin

    As a child, reading was my oasis, but it was not until I grew up, finished college, got married, and started reading aloud to a brood of boys that I began to realize it was not enough simply to read widely. I wanted to read well. In On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books, Karen Swallow Prior offers the insight that to read well, “one must read virtuously.” (15) One does this by reading closely, resisting the urge to skim, and by reading slowly, investing both time and attenti

    As a child, reading was my oasis, but it was not until I grew up, finished college, got married, and started reading aloud to a brood of boys that I began to realize it was not enough simply to read widely. I wanted to read well. In On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books, Karen Swallow Prior offers the insight that to read well, “one must read virtuously.” (15) One does this by reading closely, resisting the urge to skim, and by reading slowly, investing both time and attention into the words on the page. Books worth reading make demands upon the reader which are well-compensated: enjoyment, enrichment, and enhanced ability to think (and, therefore, to enjoy more books!).

    Reading Virtuously

    I have filled journal pages with extensive quotes just to capture and hold the sheer beauty of words. I have been formed by a love for fictional characters who somehow speak more wisdom than they realize and by authors whose view of the world made me want to peer through the same lens they were using. Looking through Karen Swallow Prior’s lens, I see that reading well is a virtue in itself, but it is also a path to further virtue:

    “Literature embodies virtue, first, by offering images of virtue in action and, second, by offering the reader vicarious practice in exercising virtue, which is not the same as actual practice, of course, but is nonetheless a practice by which habits of mind, ways of thinking and perceiving, accrue. (15)

    Therefore, On Reading Well is a book about twelve works of literature, but it is also about the twelve central virtues these works enflesh, either by their presence or by their glaring absence. For the believer, this is not simply a matter of academic interest or literary curiosity, but it is our life. The process of sanctification (becoming more virtuous) is a means of glorifying God, and a right understanding of this growth process is our best push-back against a second-rate righteousness in the form of a checklist that Christopher Smith has termed “moralistic therapeutic deism.” (36)

    For me, one of the most fascinating themes running through Karen Swallow Prior’s twelve chapters is the continual pursuit of Aristotle’s “virtuous mean” expressed this way:

    “Both the deficiency and the excess of a virtue constitute a vice.” (29)

    Virtue, then, falls “between the extremes of excess and deficiency.” (29) We’ve all been plagued by and mired in relationship with people on both ends of the bandwidth. Diligence is a virtue, but . . .

    There’s the excess of a perfectionistic, workaholic boss who has missed every ballgame and birthday party in the history of his family and can’t begin to imagine why you would need a Saturday off.

    Then, there’s the deficiency of diligence in a malingering co-worker’s two-hour lunch breaks and slipshod attention to detail that leaves you always picking up the slack.

    Skilled as I am at falling off Luther’s horse, the virtuous mean stopped me in my tracks to ponder which virtues I might be slaughtering–and in which direction.

    Virtue and Vice in Literature

    The Great Gatsby demonstrates out-of-control lack of temperance in the life of James Gatz (aka Jay Gatsby) set against the 1920’s American Prohibition movement that outlawed the sale of liquor, “a law so intemperate it could only result in vice.”

    A Tale of Two Cities captures historical injustice caused by excess and personifies anger, “the vice that opposes the virtue of justice,” in the vengeful knitting of Madame Defarge who “furiously weaves into her knitting the names of all those destined for execution at the hands of the mob.” (77)

    In this manner, On Reading Well analyzes twelve of the books you may have read courtesy of your own childhood library or bookmobile and invites you into the ones you missed. In a non-fiction format, Prior employs the most compelling aspects of fiction to take readers to a new level of understanding in their own reading life, and this is a great gift because “reading literature, more than informing us, forms us.” By reading well, we become better equipped to read more skillfully our own narrative arc, to ask ourselves the probing questions that reveal our motives and sift our hypocrisy as we trust for grace to live well.

    Many thanks to Brazos Press for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.

  • Bob

    Karen Swallow Prior wants us to heed John Milton's advice to "read promiscuously" great works of literature because they may help the reader distinguish between vice and virtue, and hopefully choose the latter. In doing so, Prior advances an argument contrary to most of contemporary literary criticism that argues against th

    Karen Swallow Prior wants us to heed John Milton's advice to "read promiscuously" great works of literature because they may help the reader distinguish between vice and virtue, and hopefully choose the latter. In doing so, Prior advances an argument contrary to most of contemporary literary criticism that argues against the purpose of teaching literature to form moral character, perhaps most famously argued in Stanley Fish's Save the World on Your Own Time. Prior argues that great books do set before us not only examples of vice and virtue but help us see the 

    or purpose or end of living a virtuous life.

    Along the way, as she introduces her theme, she proposes some helpful advice for how we might read well, summarized here:

    Prior then leads us into the practice of reading literature with an eye to what great works might help us understand about specific virtues. Most of this work focuses on twelve virtues in three groups, with a discussion of that virtue being focused on a particular work. While other virtues may be found in each of these works, her discussion is focused around one virtue in each work. Here is how the work is organized:

    Part One: The Cardinal Virtues

    1. Prudence: The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding

    2. Temperance: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

    3. Justice: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

    4. Courage: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

    Part Two: The Theological Virtues

    5. Faith: Silence by Shusaku Endo

    6. Hope: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

    7. Love: The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy

    Part Three: The Heavenly Virtues

    8. Chastity: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

    9. Diligence: Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan

    10. Patience: Persuasion by Jane Austen

    11. Kindness: "Tenth of December" by George Saunders

    12. Humility: "Revelation" and "Everything That Rises Must Converge" by Flannery O'Connor

    One of the effects of reading Prior's discussion is to introduce us to the vocabulary of virtue, one that may seem archaic for many, and yet is central to the well-lived life. Tom Jones's observations of the imprudence of many helps us understand that prudence is "right reason direct to the excellent human life." From The Great Gatsby, we discover that temperance is not abstinence but that "One attains the virtue of temperance when one's appetites have been shaped such that one's very desires are in proper order and proportion." While chastity may often be regarded, in the words of C.S. Lewis, as "the most unpopular of Christian virtues," we discover through Ethan Frome that "chastity is not withholding but giving" of our bodies in the right context, keeping faith that we say with our bodies what we've vowed with our lips and that individual chastity is nourished in a community that healthily values the living of chaste lives.

    Prior's discussion is nuanced, distinguishing between false versions of virtues as well as how each virtue is a mean between an excess and a deficiency. For example, from Jane Austen's Persuasion, we learn not only that patience is born out of enduring suffering but also that patience is virtuous "only if the cause for which that person suffers is good." It may not be a virtue to be patient with injustice!

    One of the effects of reading this work was to make me want to read or re-read the works she explores in her book. Some, like The Great Gatsby or Ethan Frome, I read in high school. Her chapter on Cormac McCarthy's The Road and her discussion of hope amid the dystopian setting of the book intrigued me enough to pick up a copy of the book.

    I do find it curious that all but one of the writers she chose were westerners of Caucasian descent. The exception is Shusaku Endo and his fine work, Silence, in which she explores the virtue of faith. Perhaps her selection reflects her own academic area as a professor of English whose research has focused in the area of Eighteenth century English literature and the work of the Eighteenth century women's writer, Hannah More. It might be valuable in future editions of this work (for which I hope!) to offer a reading list, perhaps organized around the virtues, of other great works, including those of non-Western authors and Western authors of color.

    The book includes a discussion guide at the end, making this a great resource for reading groups, as well as for personal study. The work features delightful illustrations at the beginning of each chapter by artist Ned Bustard (who also drew the cover illustration).

    Karen Swallow Prior makes a convincing case in this work for what many of us have intuited--that great literature can change our lives as we reflect on examples of virtue. And far from "spoiling" the great works she discusses, she opens them up in their possibility to instruct us such that we want to go out and read them for ourselves. But before you buy the works she discusses, I would suggest you pick up On Reading Well, because I believe it will enrich your reading of the other books.

    ____________________________

    Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

  • Kerstin

    "All literature - stories most obviously - centers on some conflict, rupture or lack. Literature is birthed from our fallenness: without the fall, there would be no story."

    This book is gem. We live in a utilitarian, functional, and secularized culture, and it is no surprise that when we look at literature, probe its meanings, we look for plot, theme, character, and the like. Yet we forget an important aspect, to look for what is edifying, for what is good, true, and beautiful, in other words, we

    "All literature - stories most obviously - centers on some conflict, rupture or lack. Literature is birthed from our fallenness: without the fall, there would be no story."

    This book is gem. We live in a utilitarian, functional, and secularized culture, and it is no surprise that when we look at literature, probe its meanings, we look for plot, theme, character, and the like. Yet we forget an important aspect, to look for what is edifying, for what is good, true, and beautiful, in other words, we no longer look for Christian virtues.

    Karen Swallow Prior explores examples in literature of the 12 virtues divided into the familiar categories of cardinal, theological, and heavenly: such as, temperance and

    , love and

    , or diligence and

    . In each of these essays, which can be read independently, she defines each virtue. She demonstrates with her examples how each virtue is a balance in moderation, for each has corresponding vices due to excess or deficiency.

    What I found interesting is that some of the examples she chooses, especially those of the 20th century which make me shudder because of their raw bleakness, have no reference at all to faith or Christianity. Here she brings to mind that the human condition doesn't change no matter the zeitgeist. Even in this environment the characters demonstrate virtue or lack thereof.

    Prior intertwines her narrative with examples from her own life, thereby bringing the virtues discussed to a very tangible level.

    Karen Swallow Prior has restored to us an awareness on how to read literature, "it is not enough to read widely. One must also read well. One must read virtuously."

  • Samuel James

    On the one hand are rote worldview tests that strip stories and art down to their "good vs bad" parts. On the other hand is a cottage industry of "engaging culture" that usually translates into consuming whatever we like indiscriminately and calling it a Christian exercise. What I love most about this book is how Prior offers a roadmap for something better: Truly seeing reality along the light beams of great books with the aim of attaining Christian virtue. The sections that discuss virtue itsel

    On the one hand are rote worldview tests that strip stories and art down to their "good vs bad" parts. On the other hand is a cottage industry of "engaging culture" that usually translates into consuming whatever we like indiscriminately and calling it a Christian exercise. What I love most about this book is how Prior offers a roadmap for something better: Truly seeing reality along the light beams of great books with the aim of attaining Christian virtue. The sections that discuss virtue itself are not quite as strong as the literary analyses, and there's a disappointing lack of theological reasoning in some parts of the book. But those are mild critiques, because this book is genuinely insightful and empowering for Christians who love great stories.

  • Jeremy

    I received an ARC paperback and read the forward and introduction on June 17–18, 2018. Promotional video

    . Commendation

    . Claremont review

    . Patheos review

    . Tony Reinke

    .

    (pp. 9–11)

    tradition of appreciating the moral dimensions of literature

    Aristotle and Sidney ("winning the mind")

    Enlightenment/modernity: decline in moral unity

    Leavis's

    literary criticism: example theory (return to the great tradition) <— this is only one

    I received an ARC paperback and read the forward and introduction on June 17–18, 2018. Promotional video

    . Commendation

    . Claremont review

    . Patheos review

    . Tony Reinke

    .

    (pp. 9–11)

    tradition of appreciating the moral dimensions of literature

    Aristotle and Sidney ("winning the mind")

    Enlightenment/modernity: decline in moral unity

    Leavis's

    literary criticism: example theory (return to the great tradition) <— this is only one way of reading a text

    goal: enhance literary appreciation and moral life of the reader

    Prior includes Bible verses at the beginning of each chapter.

    : love of reading led to love of God; Milton's

    : virtue is choosing; read books "promiscuously"

    definition of

    (excellence)

    literature embodies virtue: offering both images and vicarious practice

    reading virtuously: close attention —> patience ; interpretation/evaluation —> prudence ; making time to read —> temperance

    shortened attention span

    (16)

    "pleasure makes practice more likely"

    "one can't read well without enjoying reading"

    "On the other hand, the greatest pleasures are those born of labor and investment"

    read slowly

    take notes; Billy Collins's

    (18)

    positive and negative examples

    CSL on the danger of "use" (vs. "reception")—don't go searching (only) for the moral (that's utilitarian)

    (19)

    aesthetics is concerned with how something is said

    Aristotle on catharsis and plot

    "the act of judging the character of a character shapes the reader's own character"

    reading is formative (Smith endnotes)

    Sidney's

    : lit. teaches by example, not precept (like philosophy and history)

    (23)

    Aristotle: living well = happiness

    Enlightenment/modernity robbed Western civ. of a unified

    , glorifying God (McIntyre's

    ); emotivism: being driven by emotions (not just having them)

    (24)

    understanding figurative language such as satire and allegory makes us better thinkers and interpreters

    imagining virtuous action —> virtuous action; "good books . . . provide us with desires" (Proust)

    "Certainly, reading great books is not the only way to cultivate virtue and achieve the good life. (Plenty of virtuous people I know and love don't love books.) But literature has a particular power in forming our visions of the good life" (27).

    "actions follow affective response"

    "There is no one right reading of a literary text—but there are certainly erroneous readings, good readings, and excellent readings"

    Aristotle's

    and the virtuous mean

    cardinal (prudence, justice, temperance, courage), theological (faith, hope, love), and heavenly virtues (chastity, diligence, patience, kindness, humility)

    The great books that Prior looks at are Fielding's

    (prudence), Fitzgerald's

    (temperance), Dickens's

    (justice), Twain's

    (courage), Endo's

    (faith), McCarthy's

    (hope), Tolstoy's

    (love), Wharton's

    (chastity), Bunyan's

    (diligence), Austen's

    (patience), Saunders's "Tenth of December" (kindness), and O'Connor's "Revelation" and "Everything that Rises Must Converge" (humility)

  • Kirk

    I've only read the Persuasion chapter. Of which, I will try to comment on in the future.

    "Of all Austen's characters, Anne Elliot is the one who is most lovable and most admirable. Elizabeth Bennet is lovable, but until she overcomes her pride, she is not entirely admirable. Fanny Price and Elinor Dashwood are perhaps Austen's two most admirable characters, but they are too passionless to be greatly lovable. Anne Elliot is both of these. She is so because she is self-possessed. In her patience, s

    I've only read the Persuasion chapter. Of which, I will try to comment on in the future.

    "Of all Austen's characters, Anne Elliot is the one who is most lovable and most admirable. Elizabeth Bennet is lovable, but until she overcomes her pride, she is not entirely admirable. Fanny Price and Elinor Dashwood are perhaps Austen's two most admirable characters, but they are too passionless to be greatly lovable. Anne Elliot is both of these. She is so because she is self-possessed. In her patience, she possesses her soul."

    -pg 203 "On Reading Well" by Karen Swallow Prior, Brazos Press 2018

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