Karen Prior’s On Reading Well is a love story. It is not only the story of her love of reading good literature, but it is also her love of virtue – rooted in her Christian faith – and how one trait of good literature is its enhancement of virtue. Prior calls her first book (Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me) a love story – but I believe this one is, too.
Before I get too far in, let me say, I love a good book about books. And this one esteems books and reading – first by acknowledging that the act of reading literature is virtuous, but then by showing us how examining great works of literature teach us how to live a more virtuous life.
There has been a fair amount of research that shows us that readers learn empathy from what they read. Reading makes us better human beings. It makes us more humane. And that is much of what Prior is laying out for us in On Reading Well. “Just as water, over a long period of time, reshapes the land through which it runs, so too we are formed by the habit of reading good books well.”
In On Reading Well, Prior pairs a work of literary fiction with a virtue – cardinal, theological and heavenly – in each chapter to illustrate how a good reading of fiction calls the reader to a more noble sensibility. She demonstrates how the literary text invites the reader to not just a richer understanding but a practical application of morality.
While Prior is quick to assert on social media that the books within On Reading Well are not a suggested reading list, I do think that she is subtly making a suggestion that there is a standard for good literature – perhaps it is that which espouses virtue. In a world of relativism, I for one, enjoy a good yardstick.
The best summary I can give of what On Reading Well is to me comes in Prior’s own words in her chapter on diligence: “bringing spiritual truth down to earthly level, not simply to leave it there but to lift the reader toward the spiritual truth.”
May your experience with On Reading Well encourage your literary habits and lift you to higher grounds.
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