Book Review: ‘On Reading Well’ by Karen Swallow Prior

“Good books are a very great mercy to the world.” -Richard Baxter

I’ve heard it said that a well-crafted book review is a success if it makes you want to go read the book. If this isn’t too meta for you, it’s the object of this review to make you want to go read Karen Swallow Prior’s latest offering On Reading Wellwhich in turn is going to make you want to go read twelve more books!

People pick up books for all kinds of reasons: entertainment, information, emotional escape, and study. In her introduction, the author explains, “There is no one right reading of a literary text–but there are certainly erroneous readings, good readings, and excellent readings.” In the ensuing chapters, Prior leads us through twelve classic works of literature seeking to model for us reading well, that is, reading with the aim of virtue formation.

As a method, Prior asserts that reading well boils down to two adverbs: Reading closely and reading slowly. If we are willing to push beyond mere comprehension to wrestle with the characters, plots, and themes of great works, there is virtue to be won and vice to be conquered. She writes, “Reading literature, more than informing us, forms us.”

The skeleton of the book is made up of the spines of great novels. Each chapter treats one novel and one virtue. Part One explores the cardinal virtues (prudence, temperance, justice, and courage) in familiar works like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby. Part Two, the theological virtues faith, hope, and love are seen on the pages of Silence, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych. Part Three introduces the heavenly virtues (chastity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility) through works like Austen’s Persuasion and the short stories of Flannery O’Connor.

A few brief encouragements, and I won’t further detain you from going directly to Amazon to order this fantastic book. If for no other reason, you ought to read On Reading Well because it exposes you to works of literature that deserve your time and attention. Some of them will be familiar from grade school, others not. However, the little taste you get in each chapter makes you want to put down Prior’s book and go read the full work.

Secondly, this book does a great job of helping us rediscover the language of virtue and vice. Prior helps us to see, in a world driven by pragmatic language, that the objective of the Christian life is not merely to act virtuously but to be virtuous. Jesus himself instructed us, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Mulling over fictional dilemmas, characters, and consequences can help us better define the virtue we are striving towards and avoid the vices that hide in the recesses of our own hearts.

Finally, three cheers for fiction! In modern Christian circles, many see fiction as a frivolous waste, a distraction from theological works and historical non-fiction. However, Prior helps us regain an appreciation for well-written novels. I also think she unravels our tightly wound fear of the genre that characterizes most of God’s Word: narrative. Prior’s method of reading well–reading for virtue formation–is certainly one of several excellent ways to read the biblical narratives many of us avoid.

What are you waiting for? Go get your own copy!

I’m happy to say I received a free advanced copy of On Reading Well as a part of the launch team, and although I know we were told not to post any direct quotes from the work, I broke the rules, and for that I’m sorry. Just know that I have exercised the utmost restraint. There are so many good parts of this book! Oh, and I don’t get any kickbacks if you buy through my link, but don’t let that stop you.

Published by Chad C. Ashby

Instructor of Literature, Math, and Theology at Greenville Classical Academy Greenville, SC

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