In my small, sleepy hometown, the day the Bookmobile parked across the road from Clowater’s Market was nothing short of breathtaking. I recall no scheduled rhythm or advance warning, but somehow word reached us, and I pedaled my bike down Route 1 with an empty book bag slung over the handle bars. Filling the bag was easy, but gathering courage to approach the stern-faced, bespectacled librarian took longer.
“How many books can we check out?”
“How many do you think you can read?”
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!).
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.
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Cheering you on in the joy of reading well,
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