On Reading Well, Karen Swallow Prior. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2018.
Summary: Makes a case that the reading of great literature may help us live well through cultivating the desire in us to live virtuously and to understand why we are doing so.
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 (review). Prior argues that great books do set before us not only examples of vice and virtue but help us see the telos 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:
“Read books you enjoy, develop your ability to enjoy challenging reading, read deeply and slowly, and increase your enjoyment of a book by writing words of your own in it.”
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 (review), 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.