I was predisposed to enjoy Karen Swallow Prior’s new book On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through the Great Books. How could I not be? In it Prior advocates reading the great books as a means to enhance one’s moral life. This is precisely the type of reading I champion in my own book A Year of War and Peace. The aim of A Year of War and Peace is to learn to maintain mental tranquility and to live well with arete in a hostile, chaotic, and often violent world. It hopes to achieve this by reading and thinking deeply about the characters of Leo Tolstoy’s great book War and Peace for, as Prior writes in On Reading Well, “literary characters have a lot to teach us about character.” A Year of War and Peace is formatted as a yearlong reading experience with individually tailored daily meditations on each of the 361 chapters in the Tolstoy. In On Reading Well Karen Swallow Prior presents twelve virtues, each explored through a guided tour of a great work of literature. As such it offers book clubs and individuals, at one book per month, another high-quality, yearlong reading experience. Reading one of Prior’s suggested works each month along with the relevant chapter in her own book as a starting point is probably the best way to read On Reading Well.
Readers who adopt this reading plan will find in Prior a discerning guide to the cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, justice, and courage, the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, and the heavenly virtues of chastity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility. These are assigned a particular piece of literature with which to probe each virtue. Prior selects a wide reach of books, ranging from the classic to the modern. So, for instance, in investigating diligence you’ll read John Bunyan’s classic tale of Christian journey The Pilgrim’s Progress (fitting because you’ll need to exercise diligence to get through some of the passages in that book). Then, when it’s time to consider kindness, you’ll read George Saunders’s contemporary work, “Tenth of December.” A similarly splendid and diverse assortment of other books rounds things out.
Prior’s writing on these works is clear and insightful and she adorns her pages with elegant sentences of artful craft. Where other books of literary criticism often stumble into senseless repetition and unsly variations of content in order to stay afloat, Prior keeps her book buoyant with nimble prose and economical discourse. It’s a delight to read.
Some readers, however, might be discouraged from reading the book because of its heavy Christian thematic content. That would be a mistake. Not once does Prior descend into the narrow-minded arrogance or feathery vacuousness that, unfortunately, characterizes much of contemporary Christian art and culture. At the same time, though, she is firm in her faith. It’s refreshing. Anyone with a curious mind will benefit from reading On Reading Well. It’s a welcome addition to the “how to read” literary criticism genre.
Pick up a copy now and make 2019 your year of reading virtuously.