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Friday, September 7, 2018

"On Reading Well" (Karen Swallow Prior)

TITLE: On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books
AUTHOR: Karen Swallow Prior
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2018, (272 pages).

For many people, reading can be a great pastime. Students read for learning, but more often than not, do so in order to pass their courses. Professors read in order to teach. Researchers read in order to build their reserviour of knowledge and bibliographical resources. Many teachers also encourage their students not just to read but to read widely. What about reading slowly and intently? What does it mean to read well? What if reading could change our lives? What if reading well means living well, or vice versa? These questions help us address the fundamental purposes of reading and living. According to author Karen Swallow Prior, "reading well is, in itself, an act of virtue, or excellence, and it is also a habit that cultivates more virtue in return." That is more than a mouthful. It is specifically reading with a virtuous purpose in mind and a holistic relevance to life. Prior shows us how through the categories of the cardinal, theological, and heavenly virtues. We learn many different insights about reading well:
  • Reading well is about learning how to think
  • Reading slowly leads to deep and meaningful reading
  • Speed reading leads to "superficial knowledge and overconfidence."
  • Read virtuously by being faithful to both text and context
  • Read and enjoy
  • Read and be formed in our thinking
  • Read toward human flourishing
  • Reading fosters virtues and vision
  • Reading offers greater perspectives
  • ... and so on

Just reading the introduction is enough to make readers want to plunge into the book to be literarily soaked. The caution here is not to read just about any book, but to discern the great books. It is learning to battle our modern world's tendency toward distracted short bursts of attention reading. It is against the tendency to equate browsing to reading. Prior gives us twelve selections based on the themes of:

  1. Cardinal Virtues (Prudence, Temperance, Justice, Courage)
  2. Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope, Love)
  3. Heavenly Virtues (Chastity, Diligence, Patience, Kindness, Humility)
Using one word to describe the theme of each book, Like a skillful narrator guiding readers through the storyline, Prior shows us what to observe, especially the virtues dissolved in the dense texts. Without giving the whole story away, Prior provides snippets of the general storyline. Like an expert examining a gem, she probes the theme in multidimensional ways. What is most powerful is the way she makes the book converse with biblical principles. In many cases, the characters presented in the story personify the application of each virtue. Reading virtuously means learning to read with an understanding of the nuances associated with it. Prior brings in perspectives from saints of old, such as Thomas Aquinas and Richard Baxter. She includes great thinkers and philosophers like Aristotle, CS Lewis, GK Chesterton, Charles Taylor, and more. We also have thoughts from renowned theologians like Tom Wright, James KA Smith, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Most intriguing is how Prior manages to tell a story within a story and highlights a core message from among many messages to give us a laser focus on the central virtue.

My Thoughts
First, I learn that reading well does not mean letting our heads swell up with the entire book. It is about letting the book change us, especially on how we think. Going back to the beginning where Prior says: "Great books teach us how to think," Prior shows us not to be distressed by the dense material and to simply soak in the narrative, and to pay particular attention when the virtues come up from time to time. It may take a couple of readings or re-readings in order to understand more fully about what the author was trying to say. Prior reminds me that reading a book well does not mean reading the book from cover to cover. It simply means learning to slow down or speed up when appropriate, and to pause and reflect when necessary.

Second, Prior brings a unique perspective to the art of virtuous reading. It is learning to read books toward human flourishing. Some people read books leisurely. Many read for facts and for information. Prior shows us the way to read for personal formation. That is why the word "virtue" is such a powerful motif. Using the three categories of cardinal, theological, and heavenly virtues, Prior ensures that we do not jump into virtues we are not ready for. The first part about cardinal virtues is most easily identifiable for most readers. For instance, who wouldn't know the importance of justice? Our daily news abounds with lots of stories about justice and injustice. We see prudence readily applied each time we make a decision. We see courage played out everyday in ordinary lives. Even a person standing up for the rights of others is an act of courage. The second part about theological virtues would require more intentional reflection. I applaud Prior for selecting Shusaku Endo's book, "Silence" to focus on the virtue of faith. It is not self-confidence but trust in someone greater than ourselves. It is only in the bleakest, darkest, and gloomiest contexts that we find the brightest glimpses and opportunities to exercise faith. Prior writes something very perceptive: "We can grow in faith only when we recognize that our faith is imperfect." That is most profound indeed. We then associate virtuous reading with personal growth which sets us on the path of human flourishing. This prepares us well to receive the third part about heavenly virtues.

Third, Prior shows us the power of discernment through reading with new eyes. Stories may be old but when given fresh eyes and perspectives, they become new or renewed with fresh understanding. I must applaud Prior for the fantastic literary skill she has in teasing out virtuous themes so easily and artfully. She connects the stories to faith, which is something I appreciate.  In fact, even for readers who had read one or more of the books reviewed, there is always something to learn. My past professor did tell me that as long as I could learn at least one thing from the book, it would have been money well spent. In this book, there are more than one thing that I have benefitted from.


Karen Swallow Prior is professor of English at Liberty University, research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States.
Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Brazos Press and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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