Thursday, June 11, 2020

On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior

On Reading Well:
Finding the Good Life Through Great Books
Karen Swallow Prior
Published 2018

This book I read for pleasure but thought I would share it with others who may have seen it or heard about it and were curious. It is the kind of book that a reader who reads with intent would be interested. It is the kind of book that investment readers would write about, as Karen did. She took her own personal experiences and illuminated the moral lessons, or virtues, extracted from the books she read. 

I struggled with how to review this book without going too long; instead I will expound upon the Foreward by Leland Ryken. 

This book makes the argument that: 
  • literature makes moral statements;
  • these statements strengthen the moral life of the reader;
  • and literary criticism should explore the moral dimension of literary texts.
This was commonplace in the classical Christian tradition until the Enlightenment made us more enlightened. Moral standards? What are those? 

Ryken notes Hemingway who suggested that "what is moral is what you feel good after, and what is immoral is what you feel bad after." Look where that has gotten us.

Prior takes us back to the Great Tradition, where great literature portrays the moral life, and we, as essential readers, have a responsibility to explore those ideas. The author extracts from literature examples of virtue and vice to examine deeper with a moral magnifying glass. The purpose is that 
our understanding of virtue is increased and our desire to practice it enhanced.

According to Ryken (and obviously anyone paying attention), the modern secular lit guild is continuously rejecting Christian morality. Prior just takes us back to the original great traditions of literary analysis. 

Every chapter, which covers one specific virtue from one book, is supported with ample evidence and resources, as Prior seeks to help readers to dig deeply into the text and draw out a virtue, particularly from the character's behavior, so that we may seek to learn a moral lesson from our reading. 

Following are the virtues and their books:

Prudence: The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding
Temperance: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Justice: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Courage: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Faith: Silence by Shusaku Endo
Hope: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Love: The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy
Chastity: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Diligence: Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan
Patience: Persuasion by Jane Austen
Kindness: "Tenth of December" by George Saunders
Humility: "Revelation" and "Everything That Rises Must Converge" by Flannery O'Connor

Of these, I have only read six books, but Prior wrote in such a way that I desire to revisit them soon; and of those I have not read, I immediately found them interesting and look forward to adding them to my long list of hope-to-read-someday. 


Jillian said...

This sounds wonderful. I started this one a while ago but couldn't give it my focus. I'll definitely be reading it. x

Ruth said...

JILLIAN: It definitely is a tenacious concept, and the author did immense research to support her ideas. There was so much packed into one chapter that I could only read one at each sitting.

Sharon Wilfong said...

I have always felt that there is no sense reading if you're not going to think about what you are reading and where the author is coming from.

Great book to teach people how to analyze and read with discernment.

Juliana@the[blank]garden said...

Thank you for sharing this book, Ruth! I am interested in books that explore the conexions and possibilities between literature and morality (and, more broadly, literature and philosophy), and I will try to find this one.
As a recommendation, Iris Murdoch also has interesting discussions on morality in her nonfiction books, and her fiction books (despite usually odd, or perhaps because of it) try to explore her notions on morality and literature.
Once again, thank you for your review :)

Paula Vince said...

This book just yesterday popped up on my suggested reads on Amazon. Your review really makes me want to get hold of a copy. I like the sound of where she's coming from.

Ruth said...

SHARON: Absolutely. Digging deeper makes reading purposeful. Though sometimes it is ok for pure enjoyment. :)

JULIANA: You're welcome. This sounds like a book for you! I will look up Iris Murdoch. I have never heard of her, but books like these help us to explore more of what we read and apply those lessons to our lives. Thanks.

PAULA: See, that's why I reviewed it bc now you know what it's all about. I think I also read a review about it before I purchased it; otherwise, I would have been reluctant.