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On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books

On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books


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Publishers Weekly starred review
A Best Book of 2018 in Religion,
Publishers Weekly

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 prudence. And learning to judge wisely a character in a book, in turn, forms the reader's own character.

Acclaimed author Karen Swallow Prior takes readers on a guided tour through works of great literature both ancient and modern, exploring twelve virtues that philosophers and theologians throughout history have identified as most essential for good character and the good life. In reintroducing ancient virtues that are as relevant and essential today as ever, Prior draws on the best classical and Christian thinkers, including Aristotle, Aquinas, and Augustine. Covering authors from Henry Fielding to Cormac McCarthy, Jane Austen to George Saunders, and Flannery O'Connor to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Prior explores some of the most compelling universal themes found in the pages of classic books, helping readers learn to love life, literature, and God through their encounters with great writing. In examining works by these authors and more, Prior shows why virtues such as prudence, temperance, humility, and patience are still necessary for human flourishing and civil society. The book includes end-of-chapter reflection questions geared toward book club discussions, features original artwork throughout, and includes a foreword from Leland Ryken.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781587433962
Publisher: Baker Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/04/2018
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 157,428
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Karen Swallow Prior (PhD, SUNY Buffalo) is research professor of English and Christianity & Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist. Prior has written for Christianity Today, the Atlantic, the Washington Post, First Things, Vox, Think Christian, and The Gospel Coalition. She is a senior fellow with the Trinity Forum and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States.

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Read Well, Live Well

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.

— James 3:13

My first book, Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, is a love story, the story of how my deep love of reading slowly meandered into a deep love of God. I retell in the pages of Booked how, by reading widely, voraciously, and indiscriminately, I learned spiritual lessons I never learned in church or Sunday school, as well as emotional and intellectual lessons that I would never have encountered within the realm of my lived experience. Most importantly, by reading about all kinds of characters created by all kinds of authors, I learned how to be the person God created me to be.

A central theme of Booked is reading promiscuously. This phrase is drawn from one of the books that proved most formative for me, John Milton's Areopagitica. In this treatise, published in 1644, the Puritan poet most famous for his epic poem Paradise Lost makes an argument that would become a building block for the modern notions of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. In the tract, Milton inveighs against parliamentary licensing orders requiring all publications to be approved by the government before being printed (a legal concept that would later be called prior restraint). Significantly, it was Milton's own political faction that was in power at the time, his own people whom he thought to be in error and hoped to persuade to reject censorship.

Areopagitica makes a deeply theological argument, one that Christians today, particularly those nervously prone to a censoring spirit, would do well to consider. Grounded in Protestant doctrine (as well as the polarized political situation surrounding the English Civil War), Milton associates censorship with the Roman Catholic Church (the political as well as doctrinal enemy of the English Puritans) and finds in his Reformation heritage a deep interdependence of intellectual, religious, political, and personal liberty — all of which depend, he argues, on virtue. Because the world since the fall contains both good and evil, Milton says, virtue consists of choosing good over evil. Milton distinguishes between the innocent, who know no evil, and the virtuous, who know what evil is and elect to do good. What better way to learn the difference between evil and good, Milton argues, than to gain knowledge of both through reading widely: "Since therefore the knowledge and survey of vice is in this world so necessary to the constituting of human virtue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth, how can we more safely, and with less danger, scout into the regions of sin and falsity than by reading all manner of tractates and hearing all manner of reason? And this is the benefit which may be had of books promiscuously read."

But it is not enough to read widely. One must also read well. One must read virtuously. The word virtue has various shades of meaning (many of which will unfold in the pages of this book), but in general, virtue can most simply be understood as excellence. Reading well is, in itself, an act of virtue, or excellence, and it is also a habit that cultivates more virtue in return.

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.

Reading virtuously means, first, reading closely, being faithful to both text and context, interpreting accurately and insightfully. Indeed, there is something in the very form of reading — the shape of the action itself — that tends toward virtue. The attentiveness necessary for deep reading (the kind of reading we practice in reading literary works as opposed to skimming news stories or reading instructions) requires patience. The skills of interpretation and evaluation require prudence. Even the simple decision to set aside time to read in a world rife with so many other choices competing for our attention requires a kind of temperance.

If, like me, you have lived long enough to have experienced life — and reading — before the internet, perhaps you have now found your attention span shortened and your ability to sit and read for an hour (or more) nil. The effects on our minds of the disjointed, fragmentary, and addictive nature of the digitized world — and the demands of its dinging, beeping, and flashing devices — are well documented. Nicholas Carr explains in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains that "the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts — the faster, the better." Our brains work one way when trained to read in logical, linear patterns, and another way when continually bouncing from tweet to tweet, picture to picture, and screen to screen. These effects on the brain are amplified by technology developers who intentionally build addictive qualities into programs in order to increase user engagement, as some industry leaders have acknowledged. Whether you feel you have lost your ability to read well, or you never acquired that ability at all, be encouraged. The skills required to read well are no great mystery. Reading well is, well, simple (if not easy). It just takes time and attention.

Reading well begins with understanding the words on the page. In nearly three decades of teaching literature, I've noticed that many readers have been conditioned to jump so quickly to interpretation and evaluation that they often skip the fundamental but essential task of comprehending what the words actually mean. This habit of the mind can be seen in the body. When I ask students to describe or restate a line or passage, often their first response is to turn their eyes upward in search of a thought or an idea, rather than to look down at the words on the page in front of them where the answer actually lies. Attending to the words on the page requires deliberation, and this improves with practice.

To Read Well, Enjoy

Practice makes perfect, but pleasure makes practice more likely, so read something enjoyable. If a book is so agonizing that you avoid reading it, put it down and pick up one that brings you pleasure. Life is too short and books are too plentiful not to. Besides, one can't read well without enjoying reading.

On the other hand, the greatest pleasures are those born of labor and investment. A book that requires nothing from you might offer the same diversion as that of a television sitcom, but it is unlikely to provide intellectual, aesthetic, or spiritual rewards long after the cover is closed. Therefore, even as you seek books that you will enjoy reading, demand ones that make demands on you: books with sentences so exquisitely crafted that they must be reread, familiar words used in fresh ways, new words so evocative that you are compelled to look them up, and images and ideas so arresting that they return to you unbidden for days to come.

Also, read slowly. Just as a fine meal should be savored, so, too, good books are to be luxuriated in, not rushed through. Certainly, some reading material merits a quick read, but habitual skimming is for the mind what a steady diet of fast food is for the body. Speed-reading is not only inferior to deep reading but may bring more harm than benefits: one critic cautions that reading fast is simply a "way of fooling yourself into thinking you're learning something." When you read quickly, you aren't thinking critically or making connections. Worse yet, "speed-reading gives you two things that should never mix: superficial knowledge and overconfidence." Don't be discouraged if you read slowly. Thoughtfully engaging with a text takes time. The slowest readers are often the best readers, the ones who get the most meaning out of a work and are affected most deeply by literature. Seventeenth-century Puritan divine Richard Baxter writes, "It is not the reading of many books which is necessary to make a man wise or good; but the well reading of a few, could he be sure to have the best."

Read with a pen, pencil, or highlighter in hand, marking in the book or taking notes on paper. The idea that books should not be written in is an unfortunate holdover from grade school, a canard rooted in a misunderstanding of what makes a book valuable. The true worth of books is in their words and ideas, not their pristine pages. One friend wisely observed that "readers are not made for books — books are made for readers." (The sheer delight to be found in reading other readers' marginalia is unforgettably rendered in Billy Collins's poem, "Marginalia.")

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.

Great Books Teach Us How (Not What) to Think

My exploration in these pages of a dozen or so great works of literature attempts to model what it means to read well by examining the insights about virtues these works offer. I have selected from among my favorite literary works those that might help us to understand the classical virtues — the cardinal virtues, the theological virtues, and the heavenly virtues (more about these below). Sometimes the virtues are shown through positive examples and sometimes, perhaps more often (given the exploratory nature of great literature), by negative examples. Literary characters have a lot to teach us about character.

To read well is not to scour books for lessons on what to think. Rather, to read well is to be formed in how to think. In An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis argues that to approach a literary work "with nothing but a desire for self-improvement" is to use it rather than to receive it. While great books do offer important truths about life and character, Lewis cautions against using books merely for lessons. Literary works are, after all, works of art to be enjoyed for their own sake rather than used merely for our personal benefit. To use art or literature rather than receive it "merely facilitates, brightens, relieves or palliates our life, and does not add to it." Reading well adds to our life — not in the way a tool from the hardware store adds to our life, for a tool does us no good once lost or broken, but in the way a friendship adds to our life, altering us forever.

Yet receiving a work of art as an aesthetic experience is indeed "useful," though in a human sense, not merely utilitarian. Thomas Jefferson expresses this idea in a letter written to a friend in 1771:

Everything is useful which contributes to fix in the principles and practices of virtue. When any original act of charity or of gratitude, for instance, is presented either to our sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with its beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts also. On the contrary when we see or read of any atrocious deed, we are disgusted with its deformity, and conceive an abhorence [sic] of vice. Now every emotion of this kind is an exercise of our virtuous dispositions, and dispositions of the mind, like limbs of the body acquire strength by exercise. But exercise produces habit, and in the instance of which we speak the exercise being of the moral feelings produces a habit of thinking and acting virtuously.

Here Jefferson gets at the aesthetic aspect of reading literature. While the ethical component of literature comes from its content (its ideas, lessons, vision), the aesthetic quality is related to the way reading — first as an exercise, then as a habit — forms us. Just as water, over a long period of time, reshapes the land through which it runs, so too we are formed by the habit of reading good books well.

Reading as Aesthetic Experience

The virtue — or excellence — of literature cannot be understood apart from its form. To read literature virtuously requires attention to that form, whether the form be that of a poem, a novel, a short story, or a play. To attend to the form of a work is by its very nature an aesthetic experience.

The content of a literary work is what it says; its form is how it is said. Unfortunately, we are conditioned today to focus on content at the expense of form. When we read (or watch a film or view a work of art), we tend to look for themes, worldviews, gripping plots, relatable characters, and so forth, but often neglect the form. Part of this tendency is the fruit born of a culture influenced by a utilitarian emphasis on function and practical use at the expense of beauty and structure. Yet we know from real-life relationships and experience that how something is communicated is just as important as, if not more important than, what is communicated. Form is what sets literary texts apart from informational texts in the same way that a painting differs from paint that covers a wall: same materials, different form.

Compare, for example, the various ways one might experience an encounter with the content of a literary work: through a CliffsNotes summary, a film adaptation, or actually reading it. Each of these experiences differs significantly from the others even though the idea communicated is essentially the same. Reading virtuously requires us to pay attention to both form and content. And because literature is by definition an aesthetic experience, not merely an intellectual one, we have to attend to form at least as much as to content, if not more. Form matters.

One of the earliest works of literary aesthetics — the study of literature's form and how its form affects readers as an aesthetic experience — was Aristotle's Poetics. In Poetics, Aristotle introduces the notion of literature's cathartic effect, an idea that has had widespread influence, referring to the way literature trains emotions by arousing and then resolving them through the structure of a well-crafted plot, the element of literature that Aristotle identifies as the most important. Aristotle's emphasis on plot also bears fruitful insights into character. This is because plot, according to Paul Taylor in his essay "Sympathy and Insight in Aristotle's Poetics," "centers on the fact that the individual actions of characters follow with probability or necessity from a combination of three factors: the characters' humanity, their individual personalities, and their involvement in the circumstances depicted in the plot." In other words, plot reveals character. And the act of judging the character of a character shapes the reader's own character.

Through the imagination, readers identify with the character, learning about human nature and their own nature through their reactions to the vicarious experience. Even literature that doesn't have character or plot, such as poetry, allows for a similar kind of process: the speaker of the poem is a kind of character whose experience the reader enters into, and the unfolding of the poem in time as it is read is itself a form of plotting.

This is the difference, as Taylor explains, between learning propositional truth through reading history or an argumentative essay and gaining knowledge aesthetically through the process of reading a fictional narrative. Or, in the words of writer George Saunders, "A story means by how it proceeds." The aesthetic experience of literature — its formative quality — differs from its intellectual or informative qualities. Taylor says that "we learn from fiction in something like the way we learn directly from real life." Just as in real life, a work of literature doesn't assert but presents. Thus the act of reading literature invites readers to participate in the experience aesthetically, not merely intellectually. Our desires as human beings are shaped by both knowledge and experience. And to read a work of literature is to have a kind of experience and to gain knowledge. Ultimately, this kind of aesthetic experience — formative, not merely informative — "can help to undermine an idealized picture of human nature — one which self-deception, or plain sentimentality, might otherwise sustain." Visions of the good life presented in the world's best literature can be agents for cultivating knowledge of and desire for the good and, unlike visions sustained by sentimentality or self-deception, the true.


Excerpted from "On Reading Well"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Karen Swallow Prior.
Excerpted by permission of Baker Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Foreword by Leland Ryken
Introduction: Read Well, Live Well
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
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