On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Good Books, by Karen Swallow Prior

I have thought at times it would be appropriate to, à la Augustine, retitle this blog “Confessions.” I often feel constrained to commence a post with a disclosure of some sort: my failure to fully appreciate a work’s literary merits, failure to understand it, failure to–shameful truth–read to the end before drafting a review.

In the present case my confession is this: I was unprepared to learn so much from Prior’s engaging, accessible volume. That holes exist in my literary knowledge I am well aware. But to have encountered, despite my MA in literature, such a wealth of information and ideas both surprised and delighted me.

Granted, Prior is a professor of graduate studies at Southern Baptist Seminary. I studied at a public university where the Frankfurt School and deconstructionism, rather than the classical virtues, were central to our course of study. But while Prior’s work reflects a Judeo-Christian worldview, her discussion constitutes a rich survey of Western thought, extending from Aristotle to post-modernism.

Prior examines one book in each chapter, and her selection is by no means limited to works by authors who share her worldview. I began by listening to the audio version of On Reading Well. But about halfway through chapter 1, I switched to print; Prior’s history of literature and philosophy was too dense and detailed to absorb through my ears alone.

Literature as Experience

As a lifelong lover of fiction, I found Prior’s lauding of its virtues exhilarating. In her introduction she explains that when we read well we enter into the experiences of the literary characters. (Giving rise to such expressions as losing oneself in a book.) Such reading not ony informs but forms us; it constitutes a vicarious practice of the virtues enacted in the work (p. 21).

Prior explains that this is not a process of moralistic brainwashing. Reading literature teaches us experientially how to think, not what to think (p. 18). She devotes extended discussion to the function of literary language. Language, in itself, is representative–any given word points to something beyond itself. Language that is intentionally literary enfolds layers of potential meaning. The ability to exploit memory, abstractions, and possibility to arrive at meaning is uniquely human.

The Meaning Beneath

Literary texts exert their influence not ony by their content but, more particularly, by their form. This is especially true, according to Prior, of satire and allegory. Chapter 1 of On Reading Well examines the virtue of prudence as represented in Henry Fielding’s 18th-century satiric novel A History of Tom Jones.

Prior describes prudence as “wisdom at work on the ground, doing good and avoiding evil in real-life situations” (p.39). Fielding’s work, with its relentlessly clever narrator, relates the origins, experiences, and choices that form the character of young Tom Jones. At times the term “prudence” is directed at true manifestations of this virtue. At other times characters employ the word in the service of misguided (or even malicious) moralism.

Prior points out that satire, by mocking either vice or virtue, forces us to think more deeply about what constitues both. Rules of conduct are insufficient. One must know how and when to apply them. Prior writes that, “where rules abound, virtue, like an underused muscle, atrophies” (p. 34). In Tom Jones, readers must discern whether the term “prudence” is being applied in a manner genuine or satiric or some blend of the two. In the same way, real life requires discernment for the exercise of wise action.

Similarly, in her chapter on Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Prior discusses Austen’s use of irony. Like satire, irony intends the opposite of what it purports to say. In order to appreciate the intended reading, one must be able to see both sides of a situation. By stepping outside of the single-minded perspective that comes naturally to us, we expand our ability to perceive a situation from multiple viewpoints (p. 202).

Prior’s chapter on John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress includes an extended discussion of allegory and the virtue of diligence. Prior asserts that reading and appreciating any symbolic literature requires effort and perseverance. Later generations have been apt to regard Puritans as dull and one dimensional. But Prior attributes to these 17th-century Protestants a far more multidimensional perspective than that possessed by us moderns.

Because the Puritans were closely acquainted with allegory, they saw metaphor everywhere. The natural world abounded with reflections of spiritual truth (p. 188). As suggested by the title of Bunyan’s classic, Prior writes that a perceptive and diligent reader of allegory would “progress” from a plain reading of the text to the spiritual truth beneath it (p. 188).

Justice and Beauty

Prior enlightened me in part by connecting concepts I don’t generally associate with one another. Though–or perhaps because–it had never occurred to me explicitly, the idea that justice and natural beauty are related electrified me. In her chapter on Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, Prior describes justice in terms of harmony, symmetry. More than merely the rule of law, justice is the right relation of individuals within a community to one another.

Prior goes on to discuss aesthetics and the “golden mean”–a ratio that recurs throughout nature in items and constructions that are generally regarded as beautiful. She avers that by regarding beauty in nature we increase our ability to perceive and promote justice within our communities. (cf. the Apostle Paul’s advice to the Philippians to think on “whatver is lovely … excellent or praiseworthy.”)

Over the past few years, my very amateur interests in birds, nature photography, and painting have led to an increased awareness of beauty around me. This may not make me a better person, but the notion of attaching moral value to an appreciation for natural beauty is tempting. Of course, the notoriously imbalanced artists with which history abounds suggests there is more to this story. But such a meditation goes beyond the reach of this post.

Personal Experience

I was pleased to see Prior’s inclusion of “Tenth of December,” a short story by George Saunders, from which Prior draws a discussion of kindness. Last summer (2022) I listened to an audio version of Saunders’s A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. (Click here for my review.) His insights and advice struck me as so valuable that I bought and revisited the print version, taking extensive notes in the process. Saunders’s master class on writing makes a fitting companion to Prior’s On Reading Well.

Once I got in sync with Prior’s rhythms–and particularly once she delved into books I had read, which constituted about half the works in question–I found I could enjoy either print or audio format without getting lost. Prior’s interweaving of the relevant story lines and inclusion of anecdotes from her own life makes her text engaging and relatable, without sacrificing anything in terms of scholasticism.

I close with another confession: I was planning to give away my lightly used copy of On Reading Well as a birthday gift. But having revisited the book for this post, I was tempted to keep it and let a birthday card suffice. (My husband pointed out that I could, of course, buy another copy.) Serendipity, however, spared me the choice between churlish retention and grudging relinquishment: less than an hour after drafting this review (including the foregoing sentences), I walked into a bookstore and stumbled upon a used hardcover copy of On Reading Well. Reader, I bought it.

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