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: Dying and the Virtues

Dying and the Virtues

Dying and the VirtuesMatthew Levering. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2018.

Summary: An exploration of scripture, theological resources, and contemporary writing that considers the virtues that help the Christian believer to both live and die well.

Death is something we don’t like to talk about and much of our culture lives in a conscious effort to deny that all of us have a terminal condition. Sooner or later, we will die. From exercise to diets to medical breakthroughs to transhumanism, we are trying to extend our lives. Sometimes, we just keep ourselves too busy to think about it. Yet the refusal to face our deaths leaves us and our families unprepared when the time comes. More than this, it leads us to neglect important virtues important for both how we live and when we die.

This last is the focus of Matthew Levering’s book. Levering, a Catholic theologian, explores nine virtues through multiple lenses of scripture, theological writing, and contemporary sources: love, hope, faith, penitence, gratitude, solidarity, humility, surrender, and courage. I found time and again that his explorations brought fresh insights to familiar passages, and new perspectives I had not previously considered.

Levering begins with Job and the fundamental fear and objection Job raises–that God would annihilate the existence of one who loves him. In God’s answer, really God’s questions, Job understands that a God who can so create and order and sustain the world may be trusted, against the horror of death, to lovingly sustain him, inviting him to live a life of love. He goes on in chapter two to consider sources from Susan Sontag and David Rieff to Josef Pieper and Robert Bellarmine and how they address the existential questions death poses of meaning in our lives, where we find the will to live, and how we might live in hope, believing and meditating on the unseen realities both of the souls we possess and the promises of our future state. Chapter three, then, focuses on faith through exploring what it is that dying people want through the work of a doctor and a hospice worker who describe the longing for closure, for reconciliation with oneself, with people, and for some, with God. Jesus, whose life and death make reconciliation and communion possible, calls us to meet him, and find in him these deep longings through faith.

I had never thought of Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7 as a speech of penitence but rather one of indictment. Levering invites us in chapter four to see instead Stephen speaking prophetically in deep penitence for Israel’s sins as well as in gratitude for the grace that is greater than our sins. He then turns (chapter five) to the dying gratitude of Macrina, sister of Gregory of Nyssa. He writes:

“Gregory and Macrina complicate this notion of ‘dignity’ and of ‘hope.’ Macrina shows that ‘who has lived in dignity, dies in dignity.’ But dignity does not reside in our achievements and merely human relationships. Macrina’s ‘dignity’ consists primarily in her participation in the church’s liturgical life, through which the people of God offer themselves in Christ as a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and which extends itself in works of mercy. Prayerful praise and thanksgiving stand at the core of Macrina’s conception of human dignity” (p. 98).

Her participation in this rich liturgical worship both enables her to live with thankfulness in life but with gratitude that she shares in the resurrection to come. Our identification with Christ and his people in both penitence and gratitude leads us into solidarity (chapter six), the experience of finding comfort in our own suffering in our solidarity with the sufferings of Christ, and compassion for the sufferings of others through our communing with Christ’s sufferings.

But why does death so often involve suffering, sometimes severe? While many of us long for a peaceful passing, this is often not granted. In chapter seven, Levering looks at Mark 10:45 and the idea of ransom as a kind of tribulation by which Jesus delivers Israel out of the exile that was a consequence of her prideful rejection of God. He explores Aquinas and how suffering, both the humbling of Christ, and the stripping us of the things by which we find honor, call us into a “new exodus” of humility that is the way of salvation. Humbling leads to surrender (chapter eight), the readiness to offer up our lives to God, a surrender we often fiercely fight. The sacrament of the anointing of the sick helps us in this in reminding us of the healing work of Christ in us, to which we surrender ourselves in death that we may be raised up in Christ. Finally, in chapter nine, Levering considers the courage involved in bidding goodbye to life as we know it. He considers the work of Richard Middleton and Paul Griffiths, one emphasizing the continuities of our future state with this life, the other the discontinuities. Courage is to face this fear of this unknown future and to “boldly go” in the promise of Christ.

Levering’s argument throughout this book is that we do not merely need these virtues in our dying hours, but that these are the virtues Christians are meant to live by. Throughout, he articulates a vision of these found in union in Christ and nourished by the liturgical and sacramental life of the church, as we live into the story of scripture, finding our own story in its pages.

While some aspects of Levering’s treatment are distinctively Catholic, as would be expected of a Catholic theologian, the existential questions he explores through secular as well as Christian writers remind us of the stark realities with which all of us must deal. His focus is one all who name Christ can affirm, our union with Christ, our fundamental belief in a God who is love, and the virtues that follow. Levering opens up a conversation we desperately need to have in the church: what does it mean to die well in Christ? It is needed not only to aid us in our final days, but also because we cannot truly understand what it is to live well in Christ, until we have understood what it is to die well in Him. The conversation has been going on for centuries, even millenia. In the pages of Levering’s book, we join those from Job to Aquinas to Mother Theresa who have wrestled with these realities and lived virtuously in the face of death through their faith in God and union with Christ.

Look for an interview with Matthew Levering in an upcoming post.

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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.