How Is Your Reading Impacting Your Life?

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?”

Challenge accepted!

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.

I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to If you should decide to purchase On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books, simply click on the title (or the image) within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Cheering you on in the joy of reading well,

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An Exuberant Life

Fierce Convictions by Karen Swallow Prior:  A Book Review

In order for Hannah More to be truly Hannah More, she had to challenge nearly every aspect of her cultural context.  Fierce Convictions is richly historical and rooted deeply in the period straddling the 18th and 19th centuries, because it is impossible to appreciate the impact of Hannah More’s life without knowing the circumstances of her world at the time:

  • Female education was not only rare, but it was also frowned upon.
  • Female authors were nearly unheard of and also frowned upon.
  • Women were trained for marriage and housekeeping only and were expected to marry young.
  • Novels and religious books barely existed as literary genres.
  • Outreach to the poor and the concept of foreign missions had gotten lost somewhere in the clutter of English class consciousness.
  • Slavery was deeply ingrained in England’s social and economic identity.

Hannah’s “bright imagination” and commitment to follow God led her to challenge each of these realities, and Karen Swallow Prior has masterfully captured  More’s role in her subtitle:  The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More — Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist.


I’m convinced that if Hannah More had lived in our time, she would have had a blog.  It was in her nature to communicate through whatever medium was available, in spite of the general disdain for “the female pen.”  Positively prolific, Hannah applied her gift for verse to current events and social situations, making a name and a place for herself among elite circles (in spite of very humble beginnings).  The Inflexible Captive launched her career as a dramatic author, and she went on to make a comfortable living and an impact on contemporary culture writing Cheap Repository Tracts (a most unflattering name for short pamphlets on relevant topics at the reading level of the newly literate).  If she believed that it would help her message to be received more readily, she wrote anonymously.  Her one and only novel broke ground for 19th century novelists such as Dickens, Thackeray and the Bronte sisters.  Because her writing so closely reflected her thinking throughout her life, I would suggest an appendix in a future edition of the book with a detailed time line of all her publications and major life events.


Although best known for her efforts to abolish slavery in England, Hannah’s tongue and pen touched on everything from prison reform, crime prevention, and animal cruelty to dueling, Sabbath observance, and philanthropy.  With her four unmarried sisters, she established a girls’ school, eschewing the “superficial nature” of women’s education at that time.  Income from this and her writing, along with an annuity provided by a suitor (who had jilted her three times), allowed her to be financially independent, thus giving her the freedom to put feet to her convictions.  For example, when the hideous living conditions in the impoverished Cheddar Gorge came to her attention, she and her younger sister established themselves in the area, started a Sunday School, and went door-to-door to assess the peoples’ needs.


Every gift, every experience, every social contact, and every ounce of confidence that Hannah More had gained as a writer and a reformer were marshaled in her pursuit of emancipation for slaves in the British Empire.  At a time when Britain owned more than half the world’s slave ships,  Hannah More joined William Wilberforce in the decades-long marathon effort of awakening the social and political conscience of the people through any means available to them.  On the home front, Hannah refused to serve West Indian sugar (it “had blood on it” because of it’s dependence on the slave trade).  She spoke against slavery at every opportunity, becoming the single most influential woman in the British abolitionist movement.  She died less than two months after the Emancipation Bill passed in the House of Commons.  Her poem “Slavery” was so widely known and so effective in communicating empathy for the slaves that it later inspired David Livingstone to take Christianity to Africa.

Hannah sparkled.  She loved and worked with people of different religions and political convictions because, for Hannah, “life was a feast, and the space at her table was abundant.”  Even when writing on sober topics, Hannah More, “the first Victorian,” managed to write with humor and an engaging style.  I found myself collecting favorite aphorisms as I progressed through the book:

“On the whole, is it not better to succeed as women than to fail as men?  . . . to be good originals, rather than bad imitations?”

We “must never proportion our exertion to our success, but to our duty.”

“It should be held as an eternal truth, that what is morally wrong can never be politically right.”

To “learn how to grow old gracefully is perhaps one of the rarest and most valuable arts which can be taught to women.”

Given her huge impact and her prodigious talent, it would have been easy for a biographer to lionize Hannah More as a plastic and one-dimensional saint.  Karen Swallow Prior has avoided this by examining her flesh-and-blood weaknesses and blind spots.  For instance, Hannah offset her wild productivity with periods of “illness” in which she would take to her bed, often in conjunction with the inevitable criticism she received for her bold stands and actions.  She was very sensitive to the opinions and regard of the “upper class,” and never reached the point where she saw the need for the poor to learn to write.  Too, her lack of practical experience did not stop her from weighing in on how wives should conduct themselves and how mothers should raise their children.

Having said that, Hannah More is on my list of “Women to Have Coffee (fair trade, naturally) with in Heaven,” and this is mainly because her life demonstrated that there is no station or set of circumstances in life that precludes usefulness to God.  Professionally, she was a poet, reformer, and abolitionist.  Personally, she was single, serving, and satisfied.

Disclosure:  This book was provided by BookLookBloggers in exchange for my unbiased review.