On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior–Review

I just finished my first book of 2022, On Reading Well* by the notorious KSP, Karen Swallow Prior. I just got around to reading it. I had bought it back in 2018 right after it came out and thought it was another “how-to” book in the vein of Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book. It wasn’t, so I set it down for 3 years – to my loss. I really wish I had read this earlier. One mark of a good book is that it motivates further reading and thought on its topic beyond its pages. On Reading Well does this. It does so beautifully. At many times I had to stop and ask myself, “Am I reading about literature or theology? Am I reading about how books form us or am I reading an excellent case for virtue ethics?” The answer was, yes. 

On Reading Well makes the case that act of reading well is about being formed by what we read. Reading good books influences us at an affective level rather than merely the intellect. Stories engage our imagination and arouse our emotions. They serve as workouts for our hearts and train us in virtue, often by presenting negative examples. 

KSP demonstrates this primary thesis by taking the reader through twelve literary examples and showing how each story illustrates a particular virtue. We come to understand each virtue better through the narrative depiction, and as a result of our better understanding, we can better cultivate these virtues in our lives. Our hearts/imaginations have already been engaged and taken through the motions so to speak, so when the intellect becomes engaged through intent we’re not in uncharted territory. There is some familiarity with virtuous behavior. 

On Reading Well is structured around three sets of virtues: The Cardinal Virtues, the Theological, Virtues, and the Heavenly Virtues. The Cardinal Virtues of Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Courage are four of the classical virtues from Plato’s Republic. The Theological virtues, Faith, Hope, and Love, derive from Paul’s writings in 1 Corinthians 13. To the seven virtues above are added the Heavenly Virtues of Chastity, Diligence, Patience, Kindness, and Humility. It isn’t entirely clear to me what the difference is between the Theological Virtues and the Heavenly Virtues as categories other than the three Theological virtues are grouped together in their original source and the Heavenlies are gleaned here and there throughout Scripture and the tradition. 

A Few Specific Takeaways:

First, I find the idea that literature/story serves as a sort of boot camp for virtue very compelling. KSP in speaking of John Bunyan’s use of allegory in Pilgrim’s Progress makes this larger point that equally applies to all narrative forms, not just allegory, 

Bunyan might have written a treatise simply stating his doctrinal view that a Christian must set his sights on eternity rather than this world, must not listen to worldly wisdom nor stray from the narrow way, and so forth. But an allegory, like all stories, shows rather than tells.

On Reading Well, pg 187

With stories, we grasp the how and why of actions and sentiments more concretely than we do in didactic prose. When we grasp this we remember better, we have truly been more affected by the truth. When we’re more affected by the truth, a greater portion of our self becomes engaged in the endeavor to live virtuously. 

Second, in the chapter about Temperance, Prior explores the effect that a lack of temperance has had on our society. It is an effect that is all too familiar in my home, one my wife has been diligently trying to remedy.

Today conspicuous consumption has spread even more throughout American Culture. A recent four-year study, for example, found that the lives of the middle class are “overwhelmed”  by stockpiled supplies, clutter, and toys. Three out of four garages are too full to hold cars, and while the United States has 3.1 percent  of the world’s children, it has 40 percent of the world’s toys. Consumerism sells the idea that material things will make us happy. To counteract the excess, an entire industry in minimalism promises to rescue those drowning in stuff. The downside of this excess stuff is more than simply material or financial, however. “Economic plenty seems to impose materialistic limits on imagination and people vote themselves to recreation, entertainment, and physical pleasure. Freedom consequently becomes trivial…Everyone lives in about the same way, and it may be difficult even to think of a different way.”

On Reading Well, pg 58

That last sentence quote from Glenn Tinder’s The Fabric of Hope is the most poignant. In the name of freedom, we acquire more and more things. We say, “I want the freedom to go camping whenever I want.” So we buy the tents, and the chairs, and the sleeping bags, and the knives, and the lanterns and the stoves, and the flashlights, and the water purification tablets, and the super-lite dishes, and the compostable poo bags, and the toilet seat on a stand, and a special shovel, and the MREs, and so on and so on. We say, “I’d like the freedom to build my own furniture someday,” so we buy a router, and a miter saw, and the sawhorses and the table saw, and every diameter blade, and the drill with all the drill bits, etc. We say, “I’d like the freedom to brew my own beer,” so we buy the burner, and the kettle, and the carboy, and the fermenter, and the immersion wort chiller, and the sparger, and the mash tun, and the bottle washer, and the corny kegs, and the CO2 tanks, and the Kegerator, etc. In the name of freedom we sell ourselves into servitude to our things, and thereby nullify it. Are we really free if we cannot even think of a different way to live let alone live in a different way? Freedom, meaningful freedom, requires temperance or self-control.

Third, Like every virtue, Diligence is the mean between two vices, Perfectionism/Workaholism, and sloth. Unlike other virtues, there is a sense in which diligence is easy to cultivate because it at least conceptually is very simple. There rarely is any question about what diligence looks like in any given situation. To work on a project diligently is to give it your full attention and care not allowing yourself to be distracted from it, “whatever it is you are doing, keep at it with care and attention, and then keep at it some more. “ (180) 

The difficulty is the number of distractions we’re surrounded by. I mentioned at the beginning of this post that this is the first book I’ve completed this year. I actually finished it on January 6th. In large part because as a family we decided to try to remove the TV from our lives for one month. We canceled or paused our streaming services last week. We just do not have the option of watching right now and in the vacuum left by the removal of TV, we’ve been able to get more sleep and also get more reading done simply because we have one less thing competing for our attention and energy! It’s been great! On a micro-scale, this experiment corroborates what KSP says about her own cultivation of diligence. She says that she’s been able to cultivate diligence first and foremost from how her parents raised her. It was the air she breathed, so to speak. And second, “I am blessed in lacking any natural talents that would allow me to excel at anything without painstaking effort and practice.” (185) Without other options, be they distractions or aptitudes, we must become diligent if we want anything approaching a good life. 

Fourth, Patience. I find myself often praying for patience whether it’s with the traffic or my kids’ energy levels, or the latest nonsense being spewed on Twitter, I recognize I need patience, and I lack it. And yet, I’m not sure I could have given a decent definition of exactly what it is that I was asking for prior to this chapter.  Moreover, the way KSP demonstrates patience from the novel Persuasion by Jane Austen, I actually want to read it! I’ve never before had any desire to read a Jane Austen novel! Something similar could be said regarding many of the novels she uses to illustrate the virtues, KSP, in her own way of second-hand storytelling captivates you and makes you want to read the story she is analyzing. 

I digress. Patience as she defines it is more than waiting. It is a willingness to endure suffering. Wow. To think that when we pray for patience we are asking God to make us ready and willing to keep taking the pain or inconvenience. I think that the way we typically think of patience, or at least I did, as the ability to be impervious to the suffering, almost like some sort of divine hypnosis enabling us to walk over the hot coals of the stupidity of other drivers without feeling anything. Rather the exact opposite is what patience actually is the case. It’s being fully aware of the pain and suffering, and yet being willing to endure it because the goal is worth the suffering. In that way, patience is related to hope and temperance. 

Finally, Kindness. The virtue of kindness has almost nothing to do with niceness. Prior compares the etymology of both the word kind and nice noting that nice comes from Latin and means “unknowing” or “ignorant” whereas is related to the word “kin.” So to be kind to someone is not to treat them in a way we do as ignorant of their faults, to be kind is to treat them like family. She makes the point, following Jesus, that this is exactly what the Good Samaritan did. He treated the man who was robbed and beaten and left for dead as kin whereas the religious leaders ignored (related to ignorant) him. 

* (Not an affiliate link, buy the book to support the author not this blog)

Leave your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s