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.


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.

The Battle to Read?


By Omarfaruquepro (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons

This week, Philip Yancey posted a blog “Reading Wars” that was picked up in the Washington Post under the title “The Death of Reading is Threatening the Soul.” Yancey begins the post noting the change in his own reading practices, from about three books a week (about what I typically read) to much less, and that he is reading far fewer works that require hard work.

He attributes this to the internet, and the tendency to read a paragraph or two and move along to something else, and to skip around from one thing to the next, and be easily distracted. He also notes the constant interruptions of emails and other messaging that wants a reply now.

He quotes a Charles Chu who estimates that it would take approximately 417 hours over a year to read 200 average sized books. Chu is walking proof that it’s possible, having read 400 books in the past two years. He notes that the average American spends 608 hours on social media and 1642 hours watching television. It is not a question of time.

Rather it is a question of seduction. And this is where the battle to read comes in. Between distracting notifications on smartphones, and the temptation to go from there to different social media can consume a lot of time. It’s mind candy, kind of fun really. There’s a video–was that really ten minutes? It lures us away from our books, and makes it harder to concentrate when we sit down to read them.

Yancey joins a chorus of people from Senator Ben Sasse who is trying to cultivate practices of reading in his family to Rod Dreher in his Benedict Option who are urging us to lay aside, or even fast from our technology to make time for deep reading of the printed page. Many business are arguing for setting aside at least an hour a day for reading.

Why does it matter? Isn’t this time one could more productively employ elsewhere? Personally, I reached a decision in my forties, that having passed the peak of my physical powers, I needed to take more time to read, and think, and pray if I was going to be spiritually and intellectually vital and fresh in my work. I could not just keep recycling what I learned in college and the first years out in the work force. I was changing, the world was changing, and the advance of years brought new questions, and questioned previous assumptions.

More than that, I came to realize that there really is something grand about this collective project called humanity–noble and sometimes hubristic dreams, great ideas like the freedom of conscience, and not so great ones like race theory, and great works of art and literature, that capture in a particular piece aspects of the universal human experience. I came to discover in the Christian faith not only the two to three millenia-old sacred scriptures that are our rule of faith and practice, but that conversation of great minds from Augustine and Athanasius to Barth and Niebuhr and Kuyper that sought to understand and apply these truths to their times. Many contemporary writers and speakers, as compelling as they seemed, were pretty thin fare by comparison.

Most of all, what I think I am trying to do as I read is to live an attentive life. I want to listen for God’s voice in the things that I read, and to be open to the possibility that a word of scripture, or an idea on a page might transform my perspective, question my ways of doing things, or lead to insights into how to live or work more in sync with God’s workings in the world. More than that, if God is the real hero of this story and mine but a small supporting role (and even that is something), so much of reading is a walk in the wonder of understanding the works and ways and majesty of God, whether in a book on the latest discoveries in physics, a history of a people, or a biography of a leader of the past.

There is so much more to life than what can be expressed in 140 characters or displayed on my smartphone screen. If we are dissatisfied with the banality of our public discourse, then perhaps a good beginning is to attack our own lack of attention to deep reading of ideas that matter. We might even discover that there is great joy to be found in a rich interior life. We might want such people to be leaders in our communities, and maybe our nation. We might even become them.

In the next days, I want to discuss more of what we can do to give substantive reading a greater place in our lives, and some practices and sources that can get us started.


Reading the Bible without a Net

By George E. Curtis (1830-1910)[2] [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By George E. Curtis (1830-1910)[2] [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I work with graduate students who not only read books but read books and articles about the books, study manuscripts of the book, deconstruct the book, study books in original translations, and more. And I find this is what they want to do with the Bible. They want to get the best commentaries out of the library, understand what the text says and means in the original languages, understand the origins of the text and more.

I have no quibble with this per se’. Having attended seminary and learning something of biblical exegesis (though I by no means consider myself a biblical scholar in the professional sense), I seek to do the same when I’m in a formal teaching setting and have (or make) the time to do this work. Often, this work does contribute to enriching my understanding. I do value learning from those past and present who have worked in the same text and discovering whether my ideas are totally out to lunch.

But I also think that all of this sometimes becomes a “net” that may distract us from developing the “high wire” artistry of reading the scriptures well.  Furthermore, it seems to me that it develops a culture of “the expert” that says that only those who can read in the original languages can unlock the “secret code” of the Bible to us.

What I want to propose is that more fundamental than all this is simply bringing the practices of reading well to the Bible. My experience has been that there are scholars who read the scriptures poorly in spite of their scholarship (as well as those who read it well) and uneducated people who read well. So what goes into reading well:

  • Attentiveness to the text and to the literary art within it. The Bible, like any other book, conveys ideas through story, poetry, discourse and other genres and uses various literary cues to point us to meaning including repeated words, the climax of a story, the ordering of ideas, contrasts and comparisons, and figures of speech. When we read anything attentively, we pay attention to these sorts of things.
  • A willingness to suspend our judgment as far as this is possible while listening to the text and living within the story or poetry or discourse. Often this involves multiple readings and the use of imagination.
  • An awareness of the context of what is written. Outside sources can help, but often the most important contextual clues for any work can be found within the work if we are observant. One thing that is a good practice with any book is to skim first, then read closely. With the Bible, this can be a general skim of the whole to get a sense of the big story, or a skim of the particular book in which one is studying.
  • An openness to the text that involves a willingness to be engaged and transformed by what we encounter. When we are hostile, indifferent, or distrustful, it seems that our assumptions are those of suspicion rather than presuming the best.
  • Christians also believes that God provides illumination as we study scripture (and other things as well). It seems to me that it is not wrong to ask for this and to believe that if God is there, God wants to communicate meaningfully and intelligibly with us.

As I write this, I realize that this kind of reading requires mental effort. It is different from simply allowing a text to wash over me or have someone tell me what it says. I suspect that some of what motivates resorting to the “nets” of original languages and commentaries is that we buy the notion that this is a mysterious book that only experts can understand. I also suspect that sometimes, we are looking for a sure fire short cut to understanding. Actually, to really do the biblical scholarship thing right is itself a long-haul proposition and a little learning here may also be a dangerous thing. I can’t believe how many really bad readings of scripture I’ve heard that were prefaced by “the original Greek says.”

Most scholars of great literature will come back to the idea that whatever else you read, you must read and re-read these great texts and soak yourself in them. They are deep and rich with meaning that doesn’t yield itself to a quick, casual glance. And so it has been with my experience with the Bible. When I began reading it, there was much I didn’t get. But there were compelling stories, especially the various encounters Jesus had with people, poetry that gave voice to my longings for God, and instructions in the letters of Paul, John, and others that made sense.

Many who follow this blog are good readers. You know what it takes to read well. Whether you are a reader of the Bible or not, I hope you will do some reading “without a net”. And if you have the time, definitely use the resources of other scholars to enrich your reading. I just hope you won’t spend all your time in the net!



Reviewing and Reading Deeply

Earlier in the week, I reviewed Dallas Willard’s last book, Living in Christ’s PresenceIn this post I included Willard’s advice for readers:  “Aim at depth, not breadth. If you get depth, you will have breadth thrown in. If you aim at breadth, you will get neither depth nor breadth (p. 149).

I’ve been chewing on what Willard said. As is apparent, I read quite a few books–some for enjoyment and some to go deeper in my understanding of life and the world. Doing a book blog that includes reviews is a bit of a double-edged sword in this effort to “aim at depth.”

One the one hand, the reason I began writing reviews and continue to do so is simply to both remember and engage what I’ve read. This happens in several ways for me. One is, knowing that I will write a review, I pay closer attention to the plot or argument, because usually I will want to summarize it and do so accurately. Also, while I’m reading, I’m thinking about my evaluation of the book, the soundness of the logic and evidence, the plausibility of plot and characters, and how I am reacting to the writing style. Being an introvert, I do this mentally rather than spending a lot of time writing in margins or journalling about the book. I’m like this with presentations I do as well, where I work out in my head my thoughts before I write (yet I’m also surprised by the act of writing and the insights that come as I write, something that has arisen from blogging). All this means I go deeper with a book than I might otherwise. And I remember it better.

But I’m also thinking of the transition from a casual reviewer to something more. Now, I sometimes receive books for review, which I will do if they interest me. The transition has been from simply writing reviews to remember and crystallize in my mind what I’ve read to reading in order to write reviews and have these engage others. To be honest, it tempts me to try to read more and even think, what kinds of books would those who follow the blog like to see reviewed? As I ask this I’m reminded that I’m reading a book on people-pleasing, and it occurs to me that this might be a version of people pleasing.

I think what I’m coming to are a couple questions to keep in mind as I engage in this process. One is, am I still enjoying reading?  If it just becomes work in order to produce reviews, forget this, especially since this isn’t a paying gig! A second question is, am I reading deeply enough, and listening carefully enough to not simply comprehend the book and to be able to review it but to be changed by it if I am convinced by its conclusions or “re-oriented” by what it shows me of reality?

Does that mean I’ll read fewer books? I have to say that I don’t know the answer to that. I think if I can truthfully say “yes” to my two questions, the number of books will take care of themselves.

I’d love to know what other bibliophiles think about reading widely, reading deeply and the number of books you read!