Review: On Reading Well

On Reading Well

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.

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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.

Review: A Book for Hearts & Minds

a book for hearts and minds

A Book for Hearts and MindsNed Bustard (ed.). Baltimore: Square Halo Books, 2017.

Summary: A collection of essays on different academic disciplines and topics, honoring the work of Hearts and Minds Bookstore on over three decades of connecting thoughtful readers with serious books.

What better way to honor perhaps the best Christian bookstore in the country for over thirty years of service to the Christian community than a festschrift of essays featuring the likes of N. T. Wright, Gregory Wolfe, David Gushee, Calvin Seerveld, Mike Schutt, and others writing on topics and disciplines with which they are intimately acquainted and sharing their own recommendations of the books they think are best or were most formative for them on that topic. That’s just what Byron and Beth Borger, the proprietors of Hearts and Minds Bookstore have been doing, even before there was a bookstore.

The opening essay gives Byron’s own account of the store’s beginnings:

“My wife and I started a bookstore. We’re still trying to figure out how to keep it afloat, but overall it’s been a long and fun journey.

In the late seventies, I worked in campus ministry and part of what it emphasized was working with students. I worked with students at a small branch campus of Penn State, mostly engineering majors. I would invite them to think Christianly, as we say, and talk about the relationship of their faith to their sense of calling. I was always passing out books—you’re a Christian nurse, here’s something on healthcare, you’re going to be a scientist analyzing evolution, here’s a Christian philosophy on this or that—and students would say
to me, you should have a bookstore! Finally I realized they were right. Part of my passion was connecting people with resources they might use in their own spiritual development, but particularly as that related to living out their faith in the work world.”

Following this opening essay are eighteen others organized in alphabetical order from Art (Ned Bustard) to Vocation (Steve Garber). Each of the essays combine personal narrative with thoughtful insights on thinking Christianly about the topic at hand and conclude with recommendations by the authors of some of the books they think the best on the topic or most formative for them. It was really fun seeing what books N. T. Wright would recommend and almost every essay had at least one book recommendation of something I’d not read and would like to pick up. So many good books and so little time!

A few essays stood out for me. One you might not expect to find in this collection but which sparkled was Andi Ashworth’s on “Cooking” and her thoughts on food and feasting together, as well as some interesting cookbook recommendations (something to file away for gifts for my wife who has an extensive collection of cookbooks!). Working in ministry in higher education, I found G. Tyler Fischer’s essay on “Education” of interest in asking the question, “what is education?” and his proposal that “[e]ducation is the process of imparting the knowledge and skills needed to live as a full and loving member of a community.” I’m friends with Mike Schutt and have heard him mention Harold Berman’s works, but his recommendations convinced me that Berman has probably thought more deeply about the nature of law and its relationship to religion than anyone. I found myself identifying deeply with Karen Swallow Prior’s love for stories and was intrigued by the idea she gained from Milton about reading promiscuously (an interesting twist on the work promiscuous!). I appreciated the clear thinking of Michael Kucks on what it is that scientists do and how he thinks Christianly about scientific work.

I could go on, but I hope this enough to encourage you to get this book, and hopefully to buy it at Hearts and Minds Bookstore. Like at least one of the essay authors, I have never visited the store, nestled in a small town in the hills of eastern Pennsylvania. However I’ve met Byron presiding over truly impressive tables at a couple of conferences and witnessed first hand his ability to listen to someone and then recommend what he thinks are the best books that person could read related to his or her interests or questions. I’ve also ordered books from him, which always come carefully packaged, and speedily shipped. Many of you have discovered this blog on his Hearts and Minds Facebook page where he graciously permits me to post reviews. We share a love of connecting people with resources they might use to think and grow “Christianly.” I also look forward to reading his blog, BookNotes, which puts me onto worthy books I’ve missed. I ordered Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, after reading about it on BookNotes, and it was one of the finest books I’ve read in years!

This is the closest I get to contributing an essay in tribute to the important work Byron and Beth have pursued so faithfully for over thirty years. I salute Ned Bustard and Square Halo Books for putting together this delightful festschrift. And as you think about the books you would like to add to your “to be read” pile, I hope you will do what I have so often urged, and “buy them from Byron.” That would be fitting tribute, indeed!

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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.