ON READING WELL: Finding the Good Life through Great Books
ON READING WELL: Finding the Good Life through Great Books. By Karen Swallow Prior. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2018. 267 pages. $19.99.
Shortly before Christmas, Fleming Rutledge wrote a blog lamenting that men don’t read enough literary fiction. She put together a list of recommended literary works that men should read. Rutledge champions literary fiction because it “stirs up empathy and depth of understanding of human nature. Moreover, it trains the ear for language, and tunes the perceptions for excellence of expression. It guards against sentimentality, the enemy of true understanding.”
I share Rutledge’s lament, though I must admit that I was not a reader of literary fiction until I reached the seminary, and even then it was only on account of a guided tour through Milton’s Paradise Lost by a beloved homiletics professor that opened my eyes to the wonders and beauty of literature.
Since my tour through Paradise Lost I have voluntarily chosen to read other books. Books by Dumas, Undset, O’Connor, Endo, McCarthy, Twain, Hawthorne, and Tolstoy. I’ve come a long way from my college literature class where I argued with the professor that Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is not a “great book” because it’s “boring” (I know, I know…not the most sophisticated evaluation of literature I’ve ever made).
I’ve enjoyed my time reading great books, but I’ve largely read them alone. My singular reading of such literature guarantees that many of the treasures within these books have been passed over and left unplumbed. I wish I had read these books with others. And that’s where On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior really shines. She guides the reader through great books so well, that you feel you’re reading them with her.
On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior is an apologetic for great books. It values literature for literature’s ability to help us grow in our understanding of the virtues, which was a blind spot in my theological development. I had never participated in a sustained discussion about the virtues. They were never discussed in a class, and it wasn’t until this past December when I listened to Hauerwas’s The Character of Virtue that I purposefully reflected on them at all. On Reading Well fanned into flame the spark that Hauerwas had started.
The format of On Reading Well is as follows. Prior writes, “For this book, I’ve chosen twelve of the most central virtues and grouped them according to their traditional categories” (29). Prior then discusses each virtue on the basis of a particular character or characters from a work of literary fiction. For example, ‘temperance’ is paired with The Great Gatsby, ‘faith’ is paired with Silence by Shusaku Endo, ‘chastity’ is paired with Ethan Fromme by Edith Warton, and ‘kindness’ is paired with “The Tenth of December” by George Saunders.
Each chapter introduces the reader to the contours of the specific virtue under discussion. This is helpful for the uninitiated, such as myself. Brief definitions of each virtue are supplied, often accompanied with an etymological evaluation of the word (e.g. “Prudence is wisdom in practice”  and “Chastity, most simply, is fidelity” ). After the virtue is introduced, then Karen Swallow Prior introduces you to a literary work that puts said virtue on display. Sometimes the characters in a novel embody the virtue, sometimes the characters are failures of it. Along the way Prior opens the readers’ eyes to the craftsmanship of the literary work and helps you learn to appreciate what (among other things) the author is doing. In this way, Prior helps the reader love literature in a way that my college professor was unable to do.
Of the twelve works of literature utilized in On Reading Well, I had read only four of them. However, I was not at a disadvantage for the other eight chapters. Prior explains the narratives well enough, you don’t need to be familiar with the text under discussion. She warns that “spoilers abound” and she is right, but it doesn’t matter. It is precisely because of her book that I will now go out and read Ethan Fromme and The Death of Ivan Ilych for the first time.
If you are one who thinks that literature is boring, or that fiction is “beneath you” somehow, I encourage you to read On Reading Well. It will change your mind.
If you are one who has never participated in an extended discussion about the virtues, I encourage you to read On Reading Well and let Karen Swallow Prior introduce you into the edifying discussion.
If you are one who loves literature and desires to see a professor of literature excel at her craft, I encourage you to read On Reading Well.
If you are a pastor who cares for your people, and struggles to diagnose and articulate problems that you see on a regular basis, I encourage you to read On Reading Well, you’re likely to find the words you’ve been missing within the pages of Prior’s book.
If you are looking to start a book club, maybe start with On Reading Well, it even comes with discussion questions in the back.
On Reading Well is not a dry book. It is captivating and enjoyable to read. You won’t have to work up the energy to dive into another chapter, rather you’ll be looking at your schedule to see when you can squeeze another one in. Blogger Justin Taylor said it aright, “Prior is the English professor most of us never had. Few teachers are these clear; compelling, and Christ centered!”
Go read this book.
Rev. Timothy A. Koch, Pastor of Emanuel Lutheran Church in Milbank, SD.