On Reading Well:
Finding the Good Life Through Great Books
by Karen Swallow Prior
This book is about virtue and literature. In the first chapter, Prior introduces the theme of classical virtues, addresses the need in our day for a return to virtuous living, and reminds us that not only does good literature show us the virtues, but the very reading of that literature is a way of practicing them.
In each of the subsequent chapters she discusses one virtue -- altogether four cardinal virtues, three theological virtues, and five heavenly virtues -- and expounds upon each one in relation to a work of literature. The literary work may present a character who epitomizes that virtue (as in the patience of Anne Elliot in Jane Austen's Persuasion or the courage of Huck in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn) or a character who demonstrates the lack of that virtue (as in Jay Gatsby's lack of temperance in The Great Gatsby or Ivan Ilyich's lack of love in Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych). In each case, Prior shows how the proper expression of each virtue is a moderation between extremes: for example, courage is a mean between cowardice and rashness.
Particular parts of the book stood out for me. One was her discussion of how young Huck Finn has to work through the effects of a malformed conscience: he's been taught slavery is right, so he thinks helping Jim must be wrong -- but when he realizes in his heart that he must help Jim, he's determined to do so even if it means going to Hell. Another was her claim that the virtue of faith in Shusako Endo's Silence can only be truly understood by interpreting the book as a tragedy. And another was her chapter on kindness in George Saunders' short story "Tenth of December" -- a story I was not familiar with -- where she compares a character's suicide plan to her own father-in-law's suicide. In these and other cases, she shows how the virtues are not static stereotypes, but living, flexible concepts that (ideally) grow within us as we work them out in both the mundane and the traumatic moments of our lives.
As with the previous books by this author that I have read (Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More), Prior's love for her subject matter comes through on every page. As I read each chapter, I felt like I was listening to an engaging lecture. On Reading Well is a book any reader -- or even any person who thinks they "should" become more well-read -- will appreciate. And it's a book I'll definitely want to re-read.
Time to order myself a copy....