This post might amount to virtue signaling. It is not intended to be, but Karen Swallow Prior’s book On Reading Well is too good to keep to one’s self. And the word virtue is hard to escape in any discussion of this book, which applies literary criticism to ten books and three short stories as it pursues its goal.
As the subtitle indicates, On Reading Well is about “finding the good life through great books.” By good life, the author means a virtuous life, but not a holy, pious, or sanctified life. While each chapter opens with a brief Bible passage, and Karen Swallow Prior is a practicing Christian (see below), On Reading Well does not attempt to set a standard for virtuous living. Its goal is to encouraging a habit of reading that will enable the reader to see virtues being modeled by the characters in classic literature. In a few of the selections the virtue being discussed is not modeled by the central character, but it is dismissed or trampled upon by that person. Even that behavior is instructive, though.
The brief biography on the publisher’s website will tell you about Karen Swallow Prior’s credentials and career. If you want to know where she stands in relation to the Evangelical Christianity that you read or hear about in the news, an article about her in The New Yorker should satisfy that desire.
Before reading this book I had little hope of getting to all of the books on my to-read list in my lifetime. Between the six books and stories that On Reading Well discusses that I haven’t already read on my own and the books mentioned in the 600+ endnotes, that hope is now completely gone. Here, in the order in which they are discussed, are the books and stories that Karen Swallow Prior chose to discuss in this volume. The virtue associated with each is in parentheses after the title.
- Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (Prudence)
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (Temperance)
- Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (Justice)
- Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Courage)
- Shusaku Endo, Silence (Faith)
- Cormac McCarthy, The Road (Hope)
- Leo Tolstoy, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (Love)
- Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome (Chastity)
- John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (Diligence)
- Jane Austen, Persuasion (Patience)
- George Saunders, “Tenth of December” Tenth of December (Kindness)
- Flannery O’Connor, “Revelation” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge” Everything That Rises Must Converge: Stories (Humility)
In the summer of 2018 I read Alan Jacobs’ The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. Karen Swallow Prior cites Jacobs’ book in her introduction: “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.” (pp. 16–17) Alan Jacob’s book and Karen Swallow Prior’s book together make a great contribution at a time when reading is popular but it is often challenging to decide what to read.
Finally, On Reading Well includes several discussion questions for each chapter. Book clubs and teachers of literature will appreciate this feature. For that reason I also want to mention C. Christopher Smith’s Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish as a third book to consider if you are looking for your next read.
Thanks for stopping by.