By Nicholas Dalbey

In Choruses from “The Rock,” T. S. Eliot’s speaker begins by lamenting the intellectual and spiritual condition of modern humanity:

Where is the life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from God and nearer to Dust.

The speaker then recounts the history of humanity as one that first “struggled in torment towards God” only to leave “God not for other gods . . . but for no god.” Over the centuries, religion was replaced by reason, and wisdom by information. The result is an “age which advances progressively backwards,” moving nearer to dust and further from transcendence.

Arguably, the condition of humanity in the twenty-first century is no better off than the culture to which Eliot was speaking in 1934. Television, radio, and the internet have increased the flow of information, and social media has made everyone a “hot take” provocateur. The time and space needed for thoughtfulness and careful consideration continues to diminish more rapidly with each year, not to mention the continuing de-emphasis on the existence of a transcendent God as a moral basis for social and political decisions.

One of the interesting responses to the cultural trajectory outlined by Eliot has been the proliferation of books about reading books. Beginning with Mortimer Adler’s venerable How to Read a Book in 1940, there’s been a widespread concern about people’s ability to read and to read well. More recent examples include Harold Bloom’s (in)famous How to Read and Why (2001), Mark Edmundson’s Why Read? (2004), and Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation (2009). In every case, the author communicates a sense of urgency that the wisdom contained in books—not just the information—is being lost because of poor reading habits, negligence, or both. Thankfully, Karen Swallow Prior’s newest book, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books, joins this growing genre of writing without the characteristic cynicism and with a more robust philosophical and theological foundation.

In On Reading Well, Prior argues that reading well and the practice of virtue go hand-in-hand. Specifically, reading literature offers “the reader the vicarious practice in exercising virtue, which is not the same as actual practice, of course, but is nonetheless a practice by which habits of mind, ways of thinking and perceiving, accrue” (15). Prior divides her book into four sections, each dedicated to the cardinal virtues, the theological virtues, and the heavenly virtues respectively. Preceded by an introduction that lays the theoretical groundwork for her critical approach, Prior focuses each chapter on an individual literary work and demonstrates how it conveys a vision of the good life related to one of the virtues. In what follows, I focus on Prior’s theoretical approach to reading in general, highlighting some of its strengths and suggesting a couple caveats.

Reading Well as Criticism

Prior’s book is a work of literary criticism: a fact that may strike fear in the heart of anyone who had to take an upper-division literary theory course in college. But Prior is not writing for a strictly academic audience, so you will not find any confusing or convoluted discussions about Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, Marxism, Psychoanalysis, or New Historicism (thank God!). Despite its mind-numbing effects, however, theories of literary interpretation are inescapable, so it’s worth pausing briefly to recall the larger discussion in which Prior’s book participates.

Reading for understanding is an act of interpretation, and it entails implicit and explicit assumptions about how and why we read. The goal of literary criticism–when it’s done well–is to uncover these assumptions in order to understand how literature conveys meaning. So, for example, Marxist criticism interprets literature for its underlying economic and political power structures; psychoanalytic criticism focuses on the psychological processes underlying characterization and plot development; and New Historicist criticism tries to uncover the wide network of cultural forces (e.g., material, social, political, and religious) that produce literary works. In each case, the criticism identifies and prioritizes a set of assumptions that indicate what and how a literary work conveys meaning.

As a foray into literary criticism, On Reading Well differs from the more fashionable cultural criticisms that dominate most academic literary discussions. In the book’s foreword, Leland Ryken describes Prior’s critical approach as “good old-fashioned example theory,” which assumes “that it is the nature of literature to place examples before us—examples of virtue to emulate and vice to repudiate” (10). Example theory has its roots in Horace’s Ars Poetica which argues that poetry should resemble painting, and that it should “join the instructive with the agreeable.” Horace, in other words, is one of the first critics to proclaim the “show, don’t tell” rule of good writing.

Prior, however, takes her cues more explicitly from Sir Philip Sidney’s The Defence of Poesy. Sidney, a sixteenth century English renaissance poet and critic, argues that poetry, like philosophy, will inform readers of what is virtuous and inspire them to pursue virtue. Sidney reiterates Horace’s argument but emphasizes the inherent moral component of poetry. For Sidney, the poet not only shows the way to virtue, “but giveth so sweet a prospect into the way, as will entice any man to enter into it.” The goal of poetry is “the winning of the mind from wickedness to virtue” by engaging the whole person: body and soul, heart and mind.

Like cultural trends, literary criticism is fashionable. Example theory’s high-water mark was the English Renaissance. Since then, its influence has waned, though individuals like F. R. Leavis and C. S. Lewis have championed its cause within the past century. By taking up the mantle of example theory in our current cultural climate, Prior is fighting an uphill battle. Her thesis not only runs counter to the current trends of literary criticism; it also requires a carefully established vocabulary and interpretive framework rooted in moral philosophy.

Prior notes that “the modern age that emerged from the Enlightenment stripped humanity of a commonly understood human telos, or end, taking with it the shared moral language necessary for agreeing upon and cultivating virtue” (23). Relying on Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue and Josef Pieper’s The Four Cardinal Virtues, Prior spends much of her Introduction discussing an Aristotelian conception of virtue, which defines virtuous actions as parts of a whole. Virtue is possible only when there is a clear understanding of human purpose and when a person’s habits correspond with that purpose. Subsequently, because each chapter is dedicated to an individual virtue, Prior begins each with a summary of the relevant classical and Christian definitions.

Reading for Telos

One of the strongest points of Prior’s argument is the way she applies an Aristotelian conception of human telos to her reading of literature. I should confess that my expectations for the book were low after reading Ryken’s foreword. I was concerned I would encounter an all-too-familiar ideologically reductionist approach. The Great Gatsby would be reduced to a moral lesson about how temperance would have saved Jay Gatsby from the temptations of lust and greed, and Ethan Frome reduced to a lesson on chastity that I might hear at a “purity movement” event. Thankfully, Prior’s criticism is more sophisticated than that.

The recognition of a human telos and of transcendence does not predetermine the quality or the meaning of a literary work. Instead, the study of literature facilitates a natural human activity: the search for meaning. When a person reads fiction, she trusts that the individual events and characters mean something, that they correspond to a larger context by which she can make evaluations about how each narrative component holds together with the others. Literary language is especially suited to this kind of inquiry. Prior argues that “literary writing . . . uses language in a way that relies on layers of memory, meaning, and associations that can be objectively supported once explicated” (25). As a result, literary language “reminds us that there is, in fact, meaning” (25, emphasis original). In this way, literature forms a habit of mind. It “encourages . . . ways of perceiving, processing, and thinking that cultivate virtue by reminding us of the meaning that cannot be found apart from telos” (26).

The notion of a telos, however, is not an abstract idea imposed upon the messy details of concrete experience. Rather, telos emerges from the details. Prior insists that reading well means reading slowly and carefully, paying attention to the particulars of a story without hasty extrapolation. Her chapters on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and George Saunders’ short story “Tenth of December” illustrate the effectiveness of her approach. For anyone familiar with either author, these stories will seem like odd choices to discuss visions of transcendence and virtue. Yet, despite McCarthy’s apocalyptic vision for humanity, and Saunders’ surreal and violent stories, Prior finds hope and kindness emerging from the details of each without reducing either to an artificial moral lesson.

Formation, not just Information

The second strength of Prior’s critical approach is her insistence that reading literature well requires close attention to both form and content: “The content of a literary work is what it says; its form is how it is said” (19). In a literary context, the two cannot be neatly separated. Unlike informational or academic genres of writing, literary writing is aesthetic. Like a painting, the form of literature facilitates an experience which will add to our life “in the way a friendship adds to our life, altering us forever” (18). Prior is persuasive and eloquent on this point:

“Unfortunately, we are conditioned today to focus on content at the expense of form. When we read (or watch a film or view a work of art), we tend to look for themes, worldviews, gripping plots, relatable characters and so forth, but often neglect the form. Part of this tendency is the fruit born of a culture influenced by a utilitarian emphasis on function and practical use at the expense of beauty and structure. Yet we know from real-life relationships and experience that how something is communicated is just as important as, if not more important than, what is communicated. Form is what sets literary texts apart from informational texts in the same way that a painting differs from paint that covers a wall: same materials, different form” (19-20).

By emphasizing the form of literature and the experiential knowledge to be gained from reading literature, Prior foregrounds the intimate connection between reading and virtue. We do not merely read about virtue in great works of literature. We practice it.  Prior avoids the tendency of example theory to reduce works of literature to worldview categories. Reading literature produces experiential learning. The temperance we practice while reading a book like The Great Gatsby cultivates the formation of a habit, not just a clearer idea of temperance.

For me, the high points of Prior’s literary analysis occur in her chapters on Dickens’ The Tale of Two Cities and Shusaku Endo’s Silence. As others have noted, Prior offers an insightful analysis—one that carefully considers the form and content—of Dickens’ character Sydney Carton. Traditionally, Carton has been praised as an example of self-sacrifice for a greater good. But Prior argues for a more nuanced view: “Sydney Carton is self-effacing to a fault” (82), and he is a sacrifice to the injustice of the Reign of Terror, which makes Carton’s death “not just, but it is fair in the sense that he chooses it and does so honorably and nobly” (83). Carton is not an unequivocal exemplum for imitation. Although his character offers a vision of justice, the circumstances of his death and his actions are not without flaws.

In the same way that Sydney Carton cannot be reduced to an archetype of a justified self-sacrifice, Prior argues that Endo’s Silence resists similarly reductive interpretations. Japanese authorities threaten to torture and kill Fr. Rodrigues’ parishioners if he does not publicly deny Christ. Unable to believe that God would want him to do anything that would harm his congregation, Fr. Rodrigues yields, which raises the question of whether Rodrigues retains a genuine  faith despite having publicly denied Christ. Predictably, popular interpretations swing between both extremes. Where a liberal Catholic priest like Father James Martin praises the story’s emphasis “on the role of individual conscience over rules,” theologically conservative readers see the novel as justifying apostasy.

According to Prior, both groups of readers are wrong for the same reason. Silence is not a theological treatise. It is “a work of literary art and should be read as such” (113). Readers should attend to the shifting narrative point of view and the varying circumstances to understand the meaning of the events. The result, however, is an inescapable ambiguity: “Like a parable, Silence raises questions even as it offers possible answers” (114), which in turn resists the imposition of neat theological categories. Silence offers a particular experience of faith, one where faith is pushed to its limits without a clear resolution. The effect of the story ought to prompt reflection, not doctrine.

Further Considerations

One caveat I’d add to Prior’s excellent book is simply to point out that reading for virtue is only one way of reading, and that not all books lend themselves to such a reading. In The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, Alan Jacobs offers a helpful counter-balance to the idea of reading well: “All books want our attention, but not all of them want the same kind of attention, and good readers know this and make the necessary adjustments” (98). Sometimes reading well means keeping pace with the plot and enjoying the entertainment it provides. As Jacobs points out, reading a Stephen King novel with a pen, pausing every few sentences for reflection, will actually inhibit your ability to read the story well–much less enjoy it.

It’s also worth considering the inverse of Philip Sidney’s claim: could some stories win the mind from virtue to wickedness? Since Prior’s theory of reading literature well implies not just informational acquisition, but the forming of habits, it’s possible we might run the risk of allowing stories to form in us bad habits. In Confessions, Augustine makes this argument. He repents and is ashamed of the way the theatre, pagan poetry, and other public spectacles produced sinful desires within him, which then he found difficult to resist. The result was a pattern of bad habits of perceiving, processing, and thinking.

But Prior is aware of this, even if it isn’t an explicit component of her overall argument: “Reading well entails discerning which visions of life are false and which are good and true—as well as recognizing how deeply rooted these visions are in language” (26). “Discerning” is the key word. Unfortunately, the insight that comes with discernment cannot be gained solely through informational reading. It is the product of a long, slow process of paying close attention to the particulars of literary writing and reflecting on the aesthetic experience. In an age where technology is rapidly forming, reforming, and deforming our reading habits, On Reading Well presents a viable alternative that could restore the wisdom we’ve lost in information, and the virtue we’ve lost in utility.

Nicholas Dalbey is a husband and soon to be father. He graduated with a BA in English from Biola University and an MA in English from Middle Tennessee State University. He was the editor-in-chief for Scientia et Humanitas, and he currently works as a history, geography, composition, and literature teacher spanning grades 5-12. He enjoys writing in his “spare time.”

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  1. […] For example, check out my review of Karen Swallow Prior’s book On Reading Well over at Mere Orthodoxy. […]


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