Only four pages in to Karen Swallow Prior’s masterpiece On Reading Well, I knew I was in trouble. I love reading in lots of genres, but books about the act of reading are my weakness. I love them. I’ve already read Prior’s first book, Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and immediately wanted to be friends with her. I got a big kick out of reading The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs and Lit! by Tony Reinke. I’ve enjoyed several of Leland Ryken’s book about reading. I loved Marilynne Robsinson’s When I Was a Child I Read Books and Sven Bierkerts’ The Gutenberg Elegies and Francis Buechner’s Telling the Truth. All of these books celebrate what I already knew: Reading is the best! And people who read are the best kind of people!
And I was nodding along to everything she wrote, revelling in her wisdom, until she told me to do the one thing I simply cannot do: read slow. “Speed-reading is not only inferior to deep reading but may bring more harm than benefits” says Prior, because “speed-reading gives you two things that should never mix: superficial knowledge and overconfidence” (17). This is not just another book about reading. This is a book that dares to teach us how to read. Even before the introduction was over, I could tell I had a lot to learn.
Prior believes literature has the ability to encourage “habits of mind, ways of perceiving, processing, and thinking that cultivate virtue” (26). She then applies this philosophy to twelve different stories (many are novel-length, but there are a few chapters about short stories), showing how we see twelve virtues (or the lack thereof) in action. Her explanation of each virtue weaves together ancient philosophy with contemporary thought, creating helpful distinctions so that we can see the potential pitfalls in each virtue. If this sounds heavy-handed, you’ll have to trust me that it’s not. Prior admires these books and her delight is contagious.
This book practically demands to be read slowly, and even though I tried to read more slowly than I usually do, I know I would have benefitted from slowing down even more and taking the time to read each of the fictional stories she discusses before reading her chapters on them. I certainly got the most out of chapters on books I knew well. The chapter on Temperance, which is defined as the state of having “one’s appetites…shaped such that one’s very desires are in proper order and proportion”, showcases my favorite novel The Great Gatsby. Even though I’ve read and taught from this book many times, looking at it through the lens of Temperance offered new insights that made me want to read it again. Prior drew a connection between the famous shirt scene and the intemperance of rampant consumerism, noting “Daisy’s ecstatic worship of the shirts reflects a society in which commodities have become god” (65). Perhaps this gives a taste of Prior does so well. In combining the wisdom gained over a lifetime of reading, Prior achieves a three-part harmony between contemporary issues, timeless literature, and Christian philosophy.
Prior works her way through three categories of virtues: The Cardinal Virtues (Prudence, Temperance, Justice, Courage), The Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope, Love), and The Heavenly Virtues (Chastity, Diligence, Patience, Kindness, Humility). In each chapter, Prior offers case studies in how each virtue helps us to live out James 3:13, which serves as the epigraph for this book. “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.”
When I was preparing to go to college, I assumed that there must be a list out there called “The Classics” and that I should get a head start on reading all of them. Had I ever found such a definitive list, I would have been tempted to read them all just to be able to claim that I was well-read. Karen Swallow Prior’s book, however, redefines what it means to be well-read. It’s less about how much you read and more about how much you gain from what you read. Good stories can and will change your life. I’ve read a lot of books celebrating this, but I can’t think of one I’d recommend more highly than hers.