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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9 Names that Belong on Your Bookshelf

In a life time of reading, we make friends with a variety of authors, usually total strangers to us in real life, but nonetheless, known and beloved, because we have come to know them intimately through their books.  In Writers to Read, Douglas Wilson invites his readers into the circle of friends he has formed with nine favorite writers whose dates straddle the twentieth century, whose nomenclature leans toward the use of initials, whose faith commitments are all over the ecclesiological map, but whose writing and thinking are sure to be as iron sharpening iron — the best sort of friendship.

What sets these writers apart and makes them worthy of space on our crowded bookshelves?  In Douglas Wilson’s delightful enneadic biography and book review, five resounding reasons surfaced:

1. Their gift of seeing G.K. Chesterton was a master of paradox who had a “way of turning everything upside down so that we might be able to see it right-side-up.”  Robert Farrar (R..F.) Capon was able to portray grace in his writing to display the inexhaustible gift of God that cannot be overdone (although he tried), but his real gift was in writing about food, observing what “went on the table and what went into getting it there.”

2. Their artistic imagination N.D. Wilson happens to be Douglas’s son, a fiction and fantasy writer and a creator of villains and plots involving great danger.  He and Chesterton agree that stories with intense plots do not teach children to be afraid.  “They have dragons under the bed already.  They had the fear already. The stories actually teach children that dragons can be killed.”  I still need to be reminded of that and applaud a writer who can bring them into being on the page.
One of my favorite authors, Marilynne Robinson, is also on Douglas Wilson’s list (rendered M.S. Robinson for his purposes), and her ability to create a world and to populate it with believable characters is unrivaled.  When I read Gilead for the first time, I found myself checking and re-checking the back cover author bio to assure myself that the book truly had not been penned by an elderly parson writing his son’s “begats” in the twilight of his life.

3.  Their use of metaphor P.G. Wodehouse is first on my list of untried authors from Douglas’s recommendations, and I can hardly wait to dive in, because, apparently, “the metaphors and similes found in the work of Wodehouse cause the reader, even if alone, to laugh like a hyena with a bone caught in his throat;” and since we’re on the topic, that quote is evidence that Douglas Wilson is also no slouch in the creation of similes.
It will surprise no one to find that T.S. Eliot is also on this list of nine with his “streets that follow like a tedious argument,” and his description of fever singing “in metal wires.”  Wilson’s most encouraging and heartening contribution regarding Eliot came from Thomas Howard who explained Eliot’s “habit of treating us as though we know as much as he did.”  This is a great relief to me.
4.  Their distinctive voice — The only atheist on Douglas’s list, H.L. Mencken came across as the skeptical cynic in his writing, but with a deep vein of kindness and an ability to convey fascination.  Too, having read out loud four and a half (we bailed out on The Silmarillion) of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, his love for language and his lyrical depiction of camaraderie and adventure are  magical.  All who have been drawn into the warmth of The Fellowship will enjoy Douglas Wilson’s analysis of the uniqueness of Tolkien’s fictional world.

5.  Their ability to be both fun and good for you — In all feigned humility, I must call attention to the remarkable restraint that I have exercised to this point in not including C.S. Lewis in any or all of the previous categories, but perhaps this final quality summarizes him best and touches all the others as well.  Douglas Wilson helps us to see that the “mainspring” of this ability in Lewis is “the idea of aching after joy.”  As a romantic rationalist he fused logical reasoning with glorious imagination that turned every description and dialogue in his work into a feast for the heart and for the mind.  Who doesn’t love a talking beaver with great theology?

Although the biographical information provided in Writers to Read is informative and includes a thorough probing of influences and motivations which set the stage for digging deeper into the authors’ works, it is the final section of each chapter that presents the not-to-be-missed material.  “If You Read Nothing Else” points out a short selection of titles from each author, narrowing down the dizzying list of great books to manageable proportions.  Douglas Wilson goes one step further in his Afterword with his “you-can-do-it” encouragement to become acquainted with his nine friends.  As a book-blogger, I love reading about books and authors, and I make an effort to read as much and as broadly as I’m able, but few have made it into such an entertaining journey!

This book was provided by Crossway in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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