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Book Review: On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books

Friday, 26 October 2018  | Rex Dale



 Karen Swallow Prior (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2018)


In this book, Karen Prior seeks to revive the old-fashioned belief that literature should uphold examples of people in whose lives virtue shines and of those whose way of life is to be avoided. This belief was particularly strong during the English Renaissance. In those times the theory was never debated; it was just assumed to be right. Compare that era with today when the idea of being inspired by virtue is looked down upon as a simplistic view of literature which serious students of books should have grown out of.

This book follows an earlier one called Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, where Prior emphasises wide reading to counter some of the ills that can befall a Christian. She believes that through her reading she learned spiritual lessons that she never learned in church or in Sunday school, or from her own life experience. Wide and thoughtful reading can prevent or at least allay the tendency to be nervously prone to a censorious spirit. Quoting Milton, she says that we are constantly faced with the choice of 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, Milton says, to be mentally equipped to make good decisions than to read well. The necessity of reading well is now more urgent than ever because the information coming from the internet is in bits and pieces and fails to give a right vision for life.

In On Reading Well, Prior makes selections from Western Literature, but also includes a Japanese novel, and brings out a single virtue that is prominent in each book. She does not mean to suggest that this is all that the book in question is about, but that a book will have one feature that particularly stands out. For instance, Justice is linked with A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Love is linked with The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy. Diligence is linked with Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. Two books by Flannery O’Connor, Revelation and Everything That Rises Must Converge, are linked with the virtue of Humility. In the case of the novel by Japanese writer Shusaku Endo, there is a discussion on how cultural conditions can foster or discourage faith.

I have never been a great reader of fiction, and I am not acquainted with most of the books she focusses on. But Prior assures us that you can get something from her book even though you may never have read the books she refers to, or, if you have, that they are now a distant memory. She warns that there are plenty of ‘spoilers’ along the way. Discussion of these books is a great introduction to the various virtues and how they can elevate a person’s life, but also to how virtues can be distorted or misunderstood to our great detriment. The introduction, ‘Read Well, Live Well’, starts with James 3:13: ‘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’.

Prior acknowledges that her book is for a particular sort of person. If one is to read this book, it will not be like skimming the headlines of a newspaper or reading the instruction manual of a new appliance. Reading well means reading closely and attentively. It means deliberately setting aside time in a world that offers so many distractions. Prior quotes from Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Carr says that we are being pressed into accepting information that is short and disjointed. Industry leaders have acknowledged the effects on the brain of receiving this type of information and the addictive qualities that have been built into them. It will surely make it difficult to transition back to close, linear, meditative type of reading.

Prior warns against speed-reading. As someone who once did a course on speed-reading and benefitted from it, I understand what she is saying. But I would add that speed-reading is good when you are looking for something. Then, when you find the passage you are looking for, slow down, for then it will reach deep into your mind and perhaps even your soul. In this way you will get the maximum benefit. For a piece of literature to turn your mind in a new direction, and to keep it there, or even just to get the maximum enjoyment from the writer, it requires time. Prior counsels tackling books that make great demands on you. If a book makes no more demands upon you than a television sitcom, then you won’t get intellectual, aesthetic or spiritual rewards that last well after the cover is closed. Prior advises reading with a pen, pencil or highlighter in hand. Words and ideas are more important than pristine pages.

Prior concludes her Introduction with the words: ‘All the works chosen are literary works of enduring quality, notable for their literary form as well as their content. I hope that the practices and images of virtue each offers will serve to invite first readings and re-readings alike’.

The end of the book has a list of questions for discussion.

Rex Dale is a graduate of the University of Western Australia and spends much of his retirement reading and writing. He is the author of Insights From Greco-Roman Times and a Christian Response (Indianapolis: Dog Ear Publishing, 2014).


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