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On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books

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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 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 encounter 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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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 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 encounter 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.

30 review for On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books

  1. 5 out of 5

    Jeremy

    I received an ARC paperback and read the forward and introduction on June 17–18, 2018. Promotional video here. Commendation here. Claremont review here. Patheos review here. Forward (Ryken) (pp. 9–11) Context tradition of appreciating the moral dimensions of literature Aristotle and Sidney ("winning the mind") Enlightenment/modernity: decline in moral unity Leavis's The Great Tradition Content literary criticism: example theory (return to the great tradition) <— this is only one way of reading a text I received an ARC paperback and read the forward and introduction on June 17–18, 2018. Promotional video here. Commendation here. Claremont review here. Patheos review here. Forward (Ryken) (pp. 9–11) Context tradition of appreciating the moral dimensions of literature Aristotle and Sidney ("winning the mind") Enlightenment/modernity: decline in moral unity Leavis's The Great Tradition Content literary criticism: example theory (return to the great tradition) <— this is only one way of reading a text Achievement goal: enhance literary appreciation and moral life of the reader Prior includes Bible verses at the beginning of each chapter. Introduction Booked: love of reading led to love of God; Milton's Areopagitica: virtue is choosing; read books "promiscuously" definition of virtue (excellence) literature embodies virtue: offering both images and vicarious practice reading virtuously: close attention —> patience ; interpretation/evaluation —> prudence ; making time to read —> temperance shortened attention span To Read Well, Enjoy (16) "pleasure makes practice more likely" "one can't read well without enjoying reading" "On the other hand, the greatest pleasures are those born of labor and investment" read slowly take notes; Billy Collins's "Marginalia" Great Books Teach Us How (Not What) to Think (18) positive and negative examples CSL on the danger of "use" (vs. "reception")—don't go searching (only) for the moral (that's utilitarian) Reading as Aesthetic Experience (19) aesthetics is concerned with how something is said Aristotle on catharsis and plot "the act of judging the character of a character shapes the reader's own character" reading is formative (Smith endnotes) Sidney's Defense: lit. teaches by example, not precept (like philosophy and history) Reading "After Virtue" (23) Aristotle: living well = happiness Enlightenment/modernity robbed Western civ. of a unified telos, glorifying God (McIntyre's After Virtue); emotivism: being driven by emotions (not just having them) The Virtues of Literary Language (24) understanding figurative language such as satire and allegory makes us better thinkers and interpreters imagining virtuous action —> virtuous action; "good books . . . provide us with desires" (Proust) "Certainly, reading great books is not the only way to cultivate virtue and achieve the good life. (Plenty of virtuous people I know and love don't love books.) But literature has a particular power in forming our visions of the good life" (27). "actions follow affective response" "There is no one right reading of a literary text—but there are certainly erroneous readings, good readings, and excellent readings" Aristotle's NE and the virtuous mean cardinal (prudence, justice, temperance, courage), theological (faith, hope, love), and heavenly virtues (chastity, diligence, patience, kindness, humility) The great books that Prior looks at are Fielding's Tom Jones (prudence), Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby (temperance), Dickens's Tale of Two Cities (justice), Twain's Huck Finn (courage), Endo's Silence (faith), McCarthy's The Road (hope), Tolstoy's Death of Ivan Ilych (love), Wharton's Ethan Frome (chastity), Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (diligence), Austen's Persuasion (patience), Saunders's "Tenth of December" (kindness), and O'Connor's "Revelation" and "Everything that Rises Must Converge" (humility)

  2. 5 out of 5

    Bob

    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 th 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. 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, 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.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Samuel James

    On the one hand are rote worldview tests that strip stories and art down to their "good vs bad" parts. On the other hand is a cottage industry of "engaging culture" that usually translates into consuming whatever we like indiscriminately and calling it a Christian exercise. What I love most about this book is how Prior offers a roadmap for something better: Truly seeing reality along the light beams of great books with the aim of attaining Christian virtue. The sections that discuss virtue itsel On the one hand are rote worldview tests that strip stories and art down to their "good vs bad" parts. On the other hand is a cottage industry of "engaging culture" that usually translates into consuming whatever we like indiscriminately and calling it a Christian exercise. What I love most about this book is how Prior offers a roadmap for something better: Truly seeing reality along the light beams of great books with the aim of attaining Christian virtue. The sections that discuss virtue itself are not quite as strong as the literary analyses, and there's a disappointing lack of theological reasoning in some parts of the book. But those are mild critiques, because this book is genuinely insightful and empowering for Christians who love great stories.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Michele Morin

    As a child, reading was my oasis, but it was not until I grew up, finished college, got married, and started reading aloud to a brood of boys that I began to realize it was not enough simply to read widely. I wanted to read well. In On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books, Karen Swallow Prior offers the insight that to read well, “one must read virtuously.” (15) One does this by reading closely, resisting the urge to skim, and by reading slowly, investing both time and attenti As a child, reading was my oasis, but it was not until I grew up, finished college, got married, and started reading aloud to a brood of boys that I began to realize it was not enough simply to read widely. I wanted to read well. In On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books, Karen Swallow Prior offers the insight that to read well, “one must read virtuously.” (15) One does this by reading closely, resisting the urge to skim, and by reading slowly, investing both time and attention into the words on the page. Books worth reading make demands upon the reader which are well-compensated: enjoyment, enrichment, and enhanced ability to think (and, therefore, to enjoy more books!). Reading Virtuously I have filled journal pages with extensive quotes just to capture and hold the sheer beauty of words. I have been formed by a love for fictional characters who somehow speak more wisdom than they realize and by authors whose view of the world made me want to peer through the same lens they were using. Looking through Karen Swallow Prior’s lens, I see that reading well is a virtue in itself, but it is also a path to further virtue: “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. (15) Therefore, On Reading Well is a book about twelve works of literature, but it is also about the twelve central virtues these works enflesh, either by their presence or by their glaring absence. For the believer, this is not simply a matter of academic interest or literary curiosity, but it is our life. The process of sanctification (becoming more virtuous) is a means of glorifying God, and a right understanding of this growth process is our best push-back against a second-rate righteousness in the form of a checklist that Christopher Smith has termed “moralistic therapeutic deism.” (36) For me, one of the most fascinating themes running through Karen Swallow Prior’s twelve chapters is the continual pursuit of Aristotle’s “virtuous mean” expressed this way: “Both the deficiency and the excess of a virtue constitute a vice.” (29) Virtue, then, falls “between the extremes of excess and deficiency.” (29) We’ve all been plagued by and mired in relationship with people on both ends of the bandwidth. Diligence is a virtue, but . . . There’s the excess of a perfectionistic, workaholic boss who has missed every ballgame and birthday party in the history of his family and can’t begin to imagine why you would need a Saturday off. Then, there’s the deficiency of diligence in a malingering co-worker’s two-hour lunch breaks and slipshod attention to detail that leaves you always picking up the slack. Skilled as I am at falling off Luther’s horse, the virtuous mean stopped me in my tracks to ponder which virtues I might be slaughtering–and in which direction. Virtue and Vice in Literature The Great Gatsby demonstrates out-of-control lack of temperance in the life of James Gatz (aka Jay Gatsby) set against the 1920’s American Prohibition movement that outlawed the sale of liquor, “a law so intemperate it could only result in vice.” A Tale of Two Cities captures historical injustice caused by excess and personifies anger, “the vice that opposes the virtue of justice,” in the vengeful knitting of Madame Defarge who “furiously weaves into her knitting the names of all those destined for execution at the hands of the mob.” (77) In this manner, On Reading Well analyzes twelve of the books you may have read courtesy of your own childhood library or bookmobile and invites you into the ones you missed. In a non-fiction format, Prior employs the most compelling aspects of fiction to take readers to a new level of understanding in their own reading life, and this is a great gift because “reading literature, more than informing us, forms us.” By reading well, we become better equipped to read more skillfully our own narrative arc, to ask ourselves the probing questions that reveal our motives and sift our hypocrisy as we trust for grace to live well. Many thanks to Brazos Press for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Kerstin

    "All literature - stories most obviously - centers on some conflict, rupture or lack. Literature is birthed from our fallenness: without the fall, there would be no story." This book is gem. We live in a utilitarian, functional, and secularized culture, and it is no surprise that when we look at literature, probe its meanings, we look for plot, theme, character, and the like. Yet we forget an important aspect, to look for what is edifying, for what is good, true, and beautiful, in other words, we "All literature - stories most obviously - centers on some conflict, rupture or lack. Literature is birthed from our fallenness: without the fall, there would be no story." This book is gem. We live in a utilitarian, functional, and secularized culture, and it is no surprise that when we look at literature, probe its meanings, we look for plot, theme, character, and the like. Yet we forget an important aspect, to look for what is edifying, for what is good, true, and beautiful, in other words, we no longer look for Christian virtues. Karen Swallow Prior explores examples in literature of the 12 virtues divided into the familiar categories of cardinal, theological, and heavenly: such as, temperance and The Great Gatsby, love and The Death of Ivan Ilych, or diligence and Pilgrim's Progress. In each of these essays, which can be read independently, she defines each virtue. She demonstrates with her examples how each virtue is a balance in moderation, for each has corresponding vices due to excess or deficiency. What I found interesting is that some of the examples she chooses, especially those of the 20th century which make me shudder because of their raw bleakness, have no reference at all to faith or Christianity. Here she brings to mind that the human condition doesn't change no matter the zeitgeist. Even in this environment the characters demonstrate virtue or lack thereof. Prior intertwines her narrative with examples from her own life, thereby bringing the virtues discussed to a very tangible level. Karen Swallow Prior has restored to us an awareness on how to read literature, "it is not enough to read widely. One must also read well. One must read virtuously."

  6. 4 out of 5

    Justin

    [Disclaimer: I received an Advance Reading Copy from the publisher, but no other remuneration for a review in any manner] We’ve grown used to quick reads, a couple of swipes up with our finger and we are ready to move on to the next thing. We read for information or for distraction. We’ve taken to speed reading, to listening to audiobooks at double speed, to reading summaries online, in lieu of reading well. Reading slowly has come to be seen as something to be ashamed of. Who has time to read c [Disclaimer: I received an Advance Reading Copy from the publisher, but no other remuneration for a review in any manner] We’ve grown used to quick reads, a couple of swipes up with our finger and we are ready to move on to the next thing. We read for information or for distraction. We’ve taken to speed reading, to listening to audiobooks at double speed, to reading summaries online, in lieu of reading well. Reading slowly has come to be seen as something to be ashamed of. Who has time to read closely? In “On Reading Well” Karen Swallow Prior reminds us of the importance of reading “widely, voraciously, and indiscriminately,” but more importantly to read virtuously. By reading literature virtuously - attending to the words on the page, to the genres and styles employed by the author, to the constructions of the narrative and the characters - we can in fact begin to learn from what we are reading, be changed by literature and the stories told therein. Prior engages 12 works of literature (mostly American & British, with the odd Russian & Japanese work thrown in) and employs these as descriptors, and sometimes foils for, one of 12 virtues. Her engagement with and investigation of these literary works and corresponding virtues is based in her understanding the stories we tell and the stories we engage form us. This is not only true on in a religious sense (the Bible is after all a large, overarching narrative with different genres employed throughout), but in our national, cultural, and personal identities. These stories and narratives can impact us in ways we can’t comprehend if we don’t engage (read) them well. Prior notes that this is hard work, really reading well, but so is the cultivation of virtue. These things don’t come easy, and it is easy to err toward one extreme or another as one seeks to cultivate virtue, as one seeks out the truth of a narrative. While more of an act of literary criticism, Prior’s work also engages theological and philosophical arguments about the nature of these virtues and the characters and societies that display the lack or fullness of them. Overall a helpful book, an excellent companion and reminder of the importance of literature and the art of reading well. The work would be helpful read devotionally, as a reflection on virtue. Overall, highly recommended.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Lori

    Liberty University professor Karen Swallow Prior discusses twelve literary works in light of Christian virtues portrayed in each. She utilizes other literature, theological and Biblical studies works, philosophy, and classics to reach her conclusions. The work is divided into sections for the cardinal virtues, theological virtues, and heavenly virtues. Contents include: Prudence: The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding Temperance: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald Justice: A T Liberty University professor Karen Swallow Prior discusses twelve literary works in light of Christian virtues portrayed in each. She utilizes other literature, theological and Biblical studies works, philosophy, and classics to reach her conclusions. The work is divided into sections for the cardinal virtues, theological virtues, and heavenly virtues. Contents include: Prudence: The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding Temperance: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald Justice: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens Courage: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain Faith: Silence by Shusaku Endo Hope: The Road by Cormac McCarthy Love: The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy Chastity: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton Diligence: Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan Patience: Persuasion by Jane Austen Humility: "Revelation" and "Everything that Rises Must Converge" by Flannery O'Connor These essays would create great discussions in classes covering those works, particularly in Christian liberal arts universities. They could also serve as models for writing essays on literary works. This review is based on an advance review copy received from the publisher through NetGalley with the expectation of an unbiased review.

  8. 4 out of 5

    George P.

    For as long as I can remember, I have loved to read. My father was a pastor and my mother was a teacher, so there were always books around the house — preeminently the Bible, but also works of fiction and nonfiction. I never caught flak for reading as such, but my mom would sometimes look askance at me when I told her I was reading fiction. Fiction is weird. Pablo Picasso wrote, “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.” Leland Ryken, my college English profess For as long as I can remember, I have loved to read. My father was a pastor and my mother was a teacher, so there were always books around the house — preeminently the Bible, but also works of fiction and nonfiction. I never caught flak for reading as such, but my mom would sometimes look askance at me when I told her I was reading fiction. Fiction is weird. Pablo Picasso wrote, “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.” Leland Ryken, my college English professor, said the same thing about fiction particularly. It is “the lie that tells the truth.” That’s what makes fiction weird. It describes the human condition without narrating a historical occurrence. Some Christians trip over this paradox. I vividly remember a conversation with an older minister who insisted that Jesus’ parables weren’t made-up stories. They actually happened. If they were made up, he reasoned, then Jesus lied. Since Jesus didn’t lie, His parables took place in real life. The minister simply couldn’t see how a made-up story could tell the truth. Other Christians trip over fiction’s literary form. They are so concerned for fiction to tell “The Truth” that they write and/or read novels that are thinly veiled Sunday school lessons. I think this is why so much “Christian fiction” is so badly reviewed. Literary art gets sacrificed on the altar of making a point. On Reading Wellby Karen Swallow Prior avoids both of these errors. It shows how the best fiction uses literary art to display virtue or its opposite. That’s not all fiction does, of course. It delights, intrigues, inspires, enrages, entertains, and a thousand other things, too. But good fiction preaches without being preachy. It moralizes without becoming moralistic. As Prior writes: "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." After an Introduction that explores the connection between literature and virtue, Prior divides her book into three parts grouped around a particular set of virtues, with each chapter pairing a particular virtue with a particular story. Part One focuses on the cardinal virtues: prudence, temperance, justice and courage. The word cardinalderives from the Latin word for hinge. According to both classical philosophers and early Christian theologians, all other virtues pivot around these four. That’s why they’re cardinal. Prior explores these virtues through careful readings of The History of Tom Jones, a Foundingby Henry Fielding (prudence); The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (temperance); A Tale of Two Citiesby Charles Dickens (justice): and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (courage). Part Two examines the theological virtues: faith, hope and love. “In contrast to the other virtues,” Prior writes, “these virtues can be attained only when granted to us by God through his supernatural grace.” That is why they’re theological. The books Prior studies in these chapters are Silenceby Shusaku Endo (faith), The Roadby Cormac McCarthy (hope), and The Death of Ivan Ilychby Leo Tolstoy (love). For me, the chapters on faith and hope were the most challenging in the book, given the apostasy that lies at the heart of Endo’s tale and the hopelessness of McCarthy’s. Most challenging, but also most rewarding. Finally, Part Three explores the heavenly virtues, which are the counterparts to the seven deadly sins. They are charity, temperance, chastity, diligence, patience, kindness and humility. Since Swallow discussed charity and temperance in preceding parts of the book, she skips them here, focusing on the last five. The works she discusses are Ethan Fromeby Edith Wharton (chastity); Pilgrim’s Progressby John Bunyan (diligence); Persuasionby Jane Austen; “The Tenth of December” by George Saunders; and two short stories by Flannery O’Connor, “Revelation” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” I have nothing but praise for this book. It exemplifies how to read well, both in the sense of reading closely and of reading through the lens of moral analysis. Perhaps the highest praise I can give the book is that when I turned its last page, I wanted to read (or re-read) the works of fiction it studied. The Puritan divine Richard Baxter wrote, “Good books are a very great mercy to the world.” They are, and Karen Swallow Prior’s book shows why. Fiction, at least the best of it, offers us a window onto life and into ourselves that can alter our perceptions and lead to metanoia, a change of mind, being and action. Given that we are not as virtuous as we could be, let alone as we should be, that change is necessary. And if “the lie that tells the truth” aids us in making that change, then let us read it well. Book Reviewed Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Brooks(Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2018). P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote "Yes" on my Amazon.com review page. P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Jim

    "But it is not enough to read widely. One must also read well. One must read virtuously." Forty years ago, this undergraduate English major was introduced to the book The Universe Next Door by the late Dr James W Sire. As I read it, I was made aware of the competing worldviews of the day, most of which have become a greater part of the American cultural and religious scene in the past four decades. I thought of Sire's book as I read Dr Karen Swallow Prior's new book On Reading Well: Finding the G "But it is not enough to read widely. One must also read well. One must read virtuously." Forty years ago, this undergraduate English major was introduced to the book The Universe Next Door by the late Dr James W Sire. As I read it, I was made aware of the competing worldviews of the day, most of which have become a greater part of the American cultural and religious scene in the past four decades. I thought of Sire's book as I read Dr Karen Swallow Prior's new book On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books (Brazos Press, 2018). But while Sire's book focused on the large worldviews which compete for our attention and belief, Prior's newest book focuses on three categories of virtues within the Christian faith and tradition: The cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, justice, and courage. The theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. The heavenly virtues of chastity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility. Prior takes us on a journey through literary classics of the past and present to offer relevant and meaningful illustrations of each virtue through a specific work. The result is a tremendous work of what it means to deeply read and the value of doing so in an age of shortened attention spam and 10 second sound bites. For example, Prior uses Shusaku Endo's novel Silence to illustrated the theological virtue of faith in the story of Father Rodrigues, a Jesuit Priest who sent to Japan to investigate the allegedly renunciation of the faith by his mentor by trampling on a likeness of Jesus or Mary, called in Japanese, fumie. Rodriques himself is brought to the moment of whether or not to trample the fumie, being promised by the authorities that the torture of Christians will end if he will trample. He does. The act, and the novel, raises then the question Prior believes is the most vexing question of the novel. Namely, does the priest's act of trampling on the image of Jesus constitute a true denunciation of Christ? And the issue of what constitutes true faith is raised. I liked Reading Well. It serves as a reminder of the importance of literature to get us to think about what we think about and why we think about "it." God. Death. Faith. Love. Life. It also serves as a reminder that we seek meaning in what we read and from what we read. I believe that Reading Well would be an excellent text for college classes in literature, religion, and theology, church study groups, seminary classes especially those dealing with the virtues listed in the book. I gave Reading Well a five star rating on Goodreads. Note: I received an advanced reader copy of this book from the publisher via Net Galley in exchange for a review. I was not required to write a positive review.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Clara

    "But it is not enough to read widely. One must also read well. One must read virtuously". This book is a thesis on why reading goes beyond entertainment, but feeding the soul. Of course literature review book might seem an obvious choice for a bookworm, but it's not. To pic up a book of someone who actually understand the art that is writing and reading is refreshing, as if, paraphrasing C.S Lewis, a friendship can be formed because you come to that moment where you say "oh, you too?".

  11. 4 out of 5

    Amanda

    An excellent discussion on virtue. The virtues all interact and support one another. Reading novels as a way to grow in virtue is a wonderful prospect. Does it work for every novel? Do we need to be mindful readers for it to work? I usually miss a lot of those types of things when I read, but perhaps it is still the essence distilled from the story that does stay with me. Either way, Karen Swallow Prior has crafted a lovely, beautiful book.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Melissa

    I bought this book because Karen Swallow Prior is a superior author and thinker on topics I’m seriously devoted to: reading, literature, and how reading and literature inform and enrich the Christian’s life. Prior’s chapters on The Great Gatsby, Ethan Frome, and Flannery O’Connor’s short stories are three important reasons I bought this book. Those chapters alone were worth it to me because I teach those authors every year in my classroom.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Dorothy Greco

    Karen Swallow Prior is one of the preeminent thinkers and writers of our time. Her wit, wisdom, and insight always make for a good read. In her third book, Prior chooses 12 literature classics (including The Great Gatsby, Pilgrim’s Progress, and A Tale of Two Cities) and mines them for the virtues that they embody. Swallow Prior has an amazing ability to pull deep truths out of a text and then offer them back to her readers as invitations to grow. In chapter five, which explores faith via the no Karen Swallow Prior is one of the preeminent thinkers and writers of our time. Her wit, wisdom, and insight always make for a good read. In her third book, Prior chooses 12 literature classics (including The Great Gatsby, Pilgrim’s Progress, and A Tale of Two Cities) and mines them for the virtues that they embody. Swallow Prior has an amazing ability to pull deep truths out of a text and then offer them back to her readers as invitations to grow. In chapter five, which explores faith via the novel Silence by Shusaku Endo, she writes, “But the purpose in reading this novel—or any novel—is not to find definite answers about the characters. It is rather to ask definitive questions about ourselves.” Like all of Karen’s work, On Reading Well is a rich gift and needs to be savored.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Emily Schultz

    I think this is my favorite of all of the books I read in 2018. On Reading Well shows the reader how to find virtue in fiction works. You can read my full review here: https://wp.me/p9XsVt-u I was provided with an advanced electronic copy through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

  15. 4 out of 5

    ArynTheLibraryan

    This book describes exactly how I read books. I had so much fun seeing someone be able to clearly explain how we can read fiction and experience, practice and grow! Seeing and recognizing virtues and morals as we read, helps to prepare us to handle situations of life better. I will admit that it felt like it was written for NONFICTION readers, to help them understand the way fiction readers read and understand / learn, with lots of examples. So in that way, it was a slow read for me, With that in This book describes exactly how I read books. I had so much fun seeing someone be able to clearly explain how we can read fiction and experience, practice and grow! Seeing and recognizing virtues and morals as we read, helps to prepare us to handle situations of life better. I will admit that it felt like it was written for NONFICTION readers, to help them understand the way fiction readers read and understand / learn, with lots of examples. So in that way, it was a slow read for me, With that in mind, I would highly recommend this book to anyone who has a fiction lover in their life, and wants to understand them a little bit better. If you are a fiction lover yourself, this is great for "comparing notes" on some popular fiction. I received a copy of this book from NetGalley. This did not influence my review, all thoughts are my own.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Ned Bustard

    This was an excellent book—it had great insights into classic works of literature and inspired me to want to read several great books that I have never gotten around to picking up. And, of course, I like the artwork on the cover and at the opening of each chapter...

  17. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Coughlin

    FYI: I received an advanced reading copy from the publisher (and a poster) with no strings attached except I can't share direct quotes. On Reading Well is an excellent encouragement for reading great books. Honestly, reading through the chapters I was taken back to the discussions in my college's literatures courses. Except I have the benefit of an additional 20 years of living, marriage, career, and children that I bring with my eyes on the books. It's also a bit like sitting down with a friend FYI: I received an advanced reading copy from the publisher (and a poster) with no strings attached except I can't share direct quotes. On Reading Well is an excellent encouragement for reading great books. Honestly, reading through the chapters I was taken back to the discussions in my college's literatures courses. Except I have the benefit of an additional 20 years of living, marriage, career, and children that I bring with my eyes on the books. It's also a bit like sitting down with a friend -- an intelligent, thoughtful friend -- and having a book discussion. But more than a book discussion, the treatment of the virtues themselves are riveting. What is prudence? What is temperance? Those are words that don't even come in to our modern vocabulary -- at least not in my daily experience. So it's worth discussing these virtues. The first chapter--on the virtue of Prudence--presents prudence in the context of Henry Fielding's The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. I had never heard of this book before--showing my cards, I am not an English professor ;). So I wanted to test drive the KSP's approach to Tom Jones. While I haven't finished Tom Jones yet (it's over 700 pages), it has been an excellent and enjoyable read. I can see the Fielding's working strains of prudence throughout his characters. I'm hoping to revisit this point when I finish Tom Jones.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Matt Miles

    Since there’s a lot of ink out there lately about how literature encourages empathy, it’s refreshing to see someone take the discussion in a different direction. I’m sure the author of On Reading Well wouldn’t disagree that good fiction strengthens empathy, but she sets her sights further and higher. She sees a lack of virtues in our current culture that were historically valued in Christianity, and she believes that well-written short stories, allegories, and novels can help point the way back. Since there’s a lot of ink out there lately about how literature encourages empathy, it’s refreshing to see someone take the discussion in a different direction. I’m sure the author of On Reading Well wouldn’t disagree that good fiction strengthens empathy, but she sets her sights further and higher. She sees a lack of virtues in our current culture that were historically valued in Christianity, and she believes that well-written short stories, allegories, and novels can help point the way back. Kindness and empathy are good, as far as they go, but there is so much more as well. Whether you’ve read every book Karen Swallow Prior discusses in On Reading Well or not, and whether or not you agree with her conclusions, her consideration of twelve works of fiction through the lens of what they can teach us about virtues lends to rich and rewarding discussion. From John Bunyan to GeorgeSaunders, a wide variety of literary fiction makes the list. What can post-apocalyptic fiction teach us about hope, and what’s the difference between “nice” and “kind”? Prior manages these discussions and more fluidly and thoroughly without the common pitfalls in nonfiction of being repetitive or condescending. The craft and content will resonate as I consider language, stories, and virtue, and how each do and should inform our daily lives. Highly recommended work for devoted and intended readers.

  19. 5 out of 5

    D.J. Hamon

    My wife and I had a math teacher in middle school who sent kids to high school thoroughly prepared for algebra. But when we talk about him, it’s always about how he taught us so much more about life. Karen Swallow Prior is nominally a literature professor, but you will learn so much more than about good books. On the downside, after reading two of her books, my to be read list has grown immensely. My previous reading plan has been interrupted with consuming the books discussed in her works. On Re My wife and I had a math teacher in middle school who sent kids to high school thoroughly prepared for algebra. But when we talk about him, it’s always about how he taught us so much more about life. Karen Swallow Prior is nominally a literature professor, but you will learn so much more than about good books. On the downside, after reading two of her books, my to be read list has grown immensely. My previous reading plan has been interrupted with consuming the books discussed in her works. On Reading Well takes the student through traditional virtues, using lessons from literature across the ages. While the books she discusses are highlighted, the main topic (because she is a teacher, after all) is application. Lessons on virtue, avoiding vice, and drawing close to God permeate this work, and maintain a common thread throughout. Particularly compelling is the chapter on Kindness. An authentic narration followed by a personal appeal to the reader was quite heart rending. Bookworms and lovers of literature will adore this book. Those who prefer Christian nonfiction and avoid fiction will be pleasantly surprised at its applicability, and thoroughly enjoy it. For any other readers I say, I quite enjoyed it, and highly recommend it to all readers.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Lissa

    n this book, the author discusses three types of virtues (Cardinal, Theological and Heavenly) and how they are portrayed in classic literature. The purpose is to teach readers how to look beyond the superficial to get the most out of the reading experience. Each chapter tackles a book and a virtue found within its pages. I will say that I got more out of the chapters that dealt with books that I had already read, so it might be useful to use this book as a reference as you read each book. This i n this book, the author discusses three types of virtues (Cardinal, Theological and Heavenly) and how they are portrayed in classic literature. The purpose is to teach readers how to look beyond the superficial to get the most out of the reading experience. Each chapter tackles a book and a virtue found within its pages. I will say that I got more out of the chapters that dealt with books that I had already read, so it might be useful to use this book as a reference as you read each book. This is an intelligent, thoughtful and inspiring look at the choice to read good books. I received a digital ARC of this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    I’m not sure if I was in the right headspace to fully appreciate this book, so please take my review with a grain of salt. I love books, and I love books about books. That being said, I definitely would not categorize this book in that genre. The best description I can give this book is a collection of essays from the author’s worldview of 12 (I think!) character qualities, with a book that she feels would best demonstrate each of those traits. In my completely unprofessional opinion, I think th I’m not sure if I was in the right headspace to fully appreciate this book, so please take my review with a grain of salt. I love books, and I love books about books. That being said, I definitely would not categorize this book in that genre. The best description I can give this book is a collection of essays from the author’s worldview of 12 (I think!) character qualities, with a book that she feels would best demonstrate each of those traits. In my completely unprofessional opinion, I think the format for this type of writing would have been much better suited to series of blog posts.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Michael Swanson

    I deeply respect Karen and have loved everything I've ever read by her. On Reading Well was no exception. She found a way to talk about Christian virtue (which is often a sorely needed conversation in our current cultural moment) in the context of literature. I'm grateful that she was able to examine being formed in Christ-likeness, while simultaneously calling the reader through her own experiences in the printed word. Where Evangelicalism has often neglected the life of the mind, Karen's work I deeply respect Karen and have loved everything I've ever read by her. On Reading Well was no exception. She found a way to talk about Christian virtue (which is often a sorely needed conversation in our current cultural moment) in the context of literature. I'm grateful that she was able to examine being formed in Christ-likeness, while simultaneously calling the reader through her own experiences in the printed word. Where Evangelicalism has often neglected the life of the mind, Karen's work stands out in the most refreshing of ways, calling us to a greater faithfulness to Jesus.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Gina Dalfonzo

    As always, Karen presents us with a deeply insightful and moving analysis of great literature and how it applies to our emotional, moral, and spiritual lives. Although "A Tale of Two Cities" is my favorite novel and I loved her chapter on that one (which I got to help with a little bit! :-) ), what brought me to tears was her chapter on "Tenth of December," a book I haven't even read yet. Which just goes to show how good Karen is at bringing these stories home to us and bringing out their beauty As always, Karen presents us with a deeply insightful and moving analysis of great literature and how it applies to our emotional, moral, and spiritual lives. Although "A Tale of Two Cities" is my favorite novel and I loved her chapter on that one (which I got to help with a little bit! :-) ), what brought me to tears was her chapter on "Tenth of December," a book I haven't even read yet. Which just goes to show how good Karen is at bringing these stories home to us and bringing out their beauty and truth. Thanks to the publisher for the ARC.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Bethany

    One of my favorite college professors wrote the foreword to this so I picked it up. I’m so glad I did. Even with a not-so-disguised slam of both my favorite composer and my entire generation in the middle of it, which I felt was 1) unnecessary and 2) a misinterpretation of the moment the author mentions, the remainder of the book is well-done and thoughtful. It reminded me of being back in literature classes that challenged and inspired me. Highly recommended.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Will Stevens

    A book about reading books. It was more academic than I expected but once I accepted that, I really enjoyed this book. The thesis is that good literature and can teach us virtue and develop it within us. The author showed this in excellent analysis of a number of classic books; a few I've read but most I haven't. It made me want to read and hopefully a better reader.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Rachel

    “On Reading Well” is an admonition and encouragement in the lost art of savoring a good read. In the modern era of skimming and short attention spans, Prior reminds us of the virtue of settling into a book and resting there. She extols the virtue of reading by exploring how good reading grows virtue in the reader. I highly recommend this book for bibliophiles and lovers of literature everywhere.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Kevin Prewitt

    This work is incredibly rich and readable. Professor Prior says she isn’t a philosopher, but I beg to differ. I would buy this work again just for the quotes. I don’t usually read fiction, but I am inspired to do so.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Nancy

    An incredible read. The author gives amazing descriptions of classic and important literature that has shaped our culture and explains why, puts them in historical context, as well as which Christian virtues the books reveal. I read it in one day!

  29. 5 out of 5

    Kaytlin

    I received this book from a Good reads giveaway. I have opted not to give this book a star rating in order to be fair. This book just wasn't for me. Also, while the writing is well done, I felt that the Forward was real poorly done.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Katie Florida

    I loved this book. It was unexpectedly accessible. Extremely well written, and spiritually challenging, this was a lovely combo of etymology, literary analysis, and examination of Christian virtues. Even not having read all the referenced texts, this beautifully crafted work was a delight.

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