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On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books

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Reading great literature well has the power to cultivate virtue. Great literature increases knowledge of and desire for the good life by showing readers what virtue looks like and where vice leads. It is not just what one reads but how one reads that cultivates virtue. Reading good literature well requires one to practice numerous virtues, such as patience, diligence, and prudence. And learning to judge wisely a character in a book, in turn, forms the reader's own character.

Acclaimed author Karen Swallow Prior takes readers on a guided tour through works of great literature both ancient and modern, exploring twelve virtues that philosophers and theologians throughout history have identified as most essential for good character and the good life. In reintroducing ancient virtues that are as relevant and essential today as ever, Prior draws on the best classical and Christian thinkers, including Aristotle, Aquinas, and Augustine. Covering authors from Henry Fielding to Cormac McCarthy, Jane Austen to George Saunders, and Flannery O'Connor to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Prior explores some of the most compelling universal themes found in the pages of classic books, helping readers learn to love life, literature, and God through their encounter with great writing.

In examining works by these authors and more, Prior shows why virtues such as prudence, temperance, humility, and patience are still necessary for human flourishing and civil society. The book includes end-of-chapter reflection questions geared toward book club discussions, features original artwork throughout, and includes a foreword from Leland Ryken.

272 pages, Hardcover

First published September 1, 2018

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About the author

Karen Swallow Prior

27 books587 followers
Karen Swallow Prior (PhD, SUNY Buffalo) is the award-winning author of The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis; On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books; Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More--Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist; and Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me. She is a frequent speaker, a monthly columnist at Religion News Service, and has written for Christianity Today, The Atlantic, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Vox. She is a Contributing Editor for Comment, a founding member of The Pelican Project, a Senior Fellow at the Trinity Forum, and a Senior Fellow at the International Alliance for Christian Education.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 601 reviews
Profile Image for Cindy Rollins.
Author 20 books1,961 followers
October 28, 2018
I knew I would like this book but I was not prepared to truly love it as I did. It was truly a delightful stroll through many past reads. I decided after the first chapter to slow way down and not rush through this one.

When I got to the next to the last chapter I realized it was about a story by George Saunders which I had not read. Since it was a short story, I downloaded the book immediately and read the story The Tenth of December. I am very happy that Karen introduced me to this story which she uses to discuss kindness but I grasped onto for its beautiful way of giving dignity to the painful process of loss of control and death. Something I am very familiar with right now having watched my father decline in a 'nursing home' over the last two years. The sights and sounds and smells or skilled care were at once horrifying and beautiful. They reminded me that it is okay to suffer and it is okay to let others care for us. George Saunders has written a story that captures that.

On Reading Well was a wonderful romp through many excellent books. I will make my highlights public.
Profile Image for Laura.
720 reviews78 followers
October 22, 2018
Review originally appeared at Servants of Grace.

Only four pages in to Karen Swallow Prior’s masterpiece On Reading Well, I knew I was in trouble. I love reading in lots of genres, but books about the act of reading are my weakness. I love them. I’ve already read Prior’s first book, Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and immediately wanted to be friends with her. I got a big kick out of reading The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs and Lit! by Tony Reinke. I’ve enjoyed several of Leland Ryken’s book about reading. I loved Marilynne Robsinson’s When I Was a Child I Read Books and Sven Bierkerts’ The Gutenberg Elegies and Francis Buechner’s Telling the Truth. All of these books celebrate what I already knew: Reading is the best! And people who read are the best kind of people!

And I was nodding along to everything she wrote, revelling in her wisdom, until she told me to do the one thing I simply cannot do: read slow. “Speed-reading is not only inferior to deep reading but may bring more harm than benefits” says Prior, because “speed-reading gives you two things that should never mix: superficial knowledge and overconfidence” (17). This is not just another book about reading. This is a book that dares to teach us how to read. Even before the introduction was over, I could tell I had a lot to learn.

Prior believes literature has the ability to encourage “habits of mind, ways of perceiving, processing, and thinking that cultivate virtue” (26). She then applies this philosophy to twelve different stories (many are novel-length, but there are a few chapters about short stories), showing how we see twelve virtues (or the lack thereof) in action. Her explanation of each virtue weaves together ancient philosophy with contemporary thought, creating helpful distinctions so that we can see the potential pitfalls in each virtue. If this sounds heavy-handed, you’ll have to trust me that it’s not. Prior admires these books and her delight is contagious.

This book practically demands to be read slowly, and even though I tried to read more slowly than I usually do, I know I would have benefitted from slowing down even more and taking the time to read each of the fictional stories she discusses before reading her chapters on them. I certainly got the most out of chapters on books I knew well. The chapter on Temperance, which is defined as the state of having “one’s appetites…shaped such that one’s very desires are in proper order and proportion”, showcases my favorite novel The Great Gatsby. Even though I’ve read and taught from this book many times, looking at it through the lens of Temperance offered new insights that made me want to read it again. Prior drew a connection between the famous shirt scene and the intemperance of rampant consumerism, noting “Daisy’s ecstatic worship of the shirts reflects a society in which commodities have become god” (65). Perhaps this gives a taste of Prior does so well. In combining the wisdom gained over a lifetime of reading, Prior achieves a three-part harmony between contemporary issues, timeless literature, and Christian philosophy.

Prior works her way through three categories of virtues: The Cardinal Virtues (Prudence, Temperance, Justice, Courage), The Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope, Love), and The Heavenly Virtues (Chastity, Diligence, Patience, Kindness, Humility). In each chapter, Prior offers case studies in how each virtue helps us to live out James 3:13Open in Logos Bible Software (if available), which serves as the epigraph for this book. “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.”

When I was preparing to go to college, I assumed that there must be a list out there called “The Classics” and that I should get a head start on reading all of them. Had I ever found such a definitive list, I would have been tempted to read them all just to be able to claim that I was well-read. Karen Swallow Prior’s book, however, redefines what it means to be well-read. It’s less about how much you read and more about how much you gain from what you read. Good stories can and will change your life. I’ve read a lot of books celebrating this, but I can’t think of one I’d recommend more highly than hers.
Profile Image for Maxwell.
1,113 reviews8,046 followers
June 20, 2019
[4.5 stars] I thoroughly enjoyed this book because I felt a deep connection to Prior's point-of-view. Her literary outlook on life and her Christian perspective really resonated with me. I also found it particularly enjoyable because I have read many of the works of literature which she references. It was also a book in which I underlined and made notes throughout, and I'm sure I will return to this again in the future. A good work of literature not only inspires thought but action, and this book did both.
Profile Image for Bob.
1,815 reviews616 followers
September 17, 2018
Summary: Makes a case that the reading of great literature may help us live well through cultivating the desire in us to live virtuously and to understand why we are doing so.

Karen Swallow Prior wants us to heed John Milton's advice to "read promiscuously" great works of literature because they may help the reader distinguish between vice and virtue, and hopefully choose the latter. In doing so, Prior advances an argument contrary to most of contemporary literary criticism that argues against the purpose of teaching literature to form moral character, perhaps most famously argued in Stanley Fish's Save the World on Your Own Time. Prior argues that great books do set before us not only examples of vice and virtue but help us see the telos or purpose or end of living a virtuous life.

Along the way, as she introduces her theme, she proposes some helpful advice for how we might read well, summarized here:

"Read books you enjoy, develop your ability to enjoy challenging reading, read deeply and slowly, and increase your enjoyment of a book by writing words of your own in it."

Prior then leads us into the practice of reading literature with an eye to what great works might help us understand about specific virtues. Most of this work focuses on twelve virtues in three groups, with a discussion of that virtue being focused on a particular work. While other virtues may be found in each of these works, her discussion is focused around one virtue in each work. Here is how the work is organized:

Part One: The Cardinal Virtues
1. Prudence: The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding
2. Temperance: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
3. Justice: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
4. Courage: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Part Two: The Theological Virtues
5. Faith: Silence by Shusaku Endo
6. Hope: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
7. Love: The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy

Part Three: The Heavenly Virtues
8. Chastity: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
9. Diligence: Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan
10. Patience: Persuasion by Jane Austen
11. Kindness: "Tenth of December" by George Saunders
12. Humility: "Revelation" and "Everything That Rises Must Converge" by Flannery O'Connor

One of the effects of reading Prior's discussion is to introduce us to the vocabulary of virtue, one that may seem archaic for many, and yet is central to the well-lived life. Tom Jones's observations of the imprudence of many helps us understand that prudence is "right reason direct to the excellent human life." From The Great Gatsby, we discover that temperance is not abstinence but that "One attains the virtue of temperance when one's appetites have been shaped such that one's very desires are in proper order and proportion." While chastity may often be regarded, in the words of C.S. Lewis, as "the most unpopular of Christian virtues," we discover through Ethan Frome that "chastity is not withholding but giving" of our bodies in the right context, keeping faith that we say with our bodies what we've vowed with our lips and that individual chastity is nourished in a community that healthily values the living of chaste lives.

Prior's discussion is nuanced, distinguishing between false versions of virtues as well as how each virtue is a mean between an excess and a deficiency. For example, from Jane Austen's Persuasion, we learn not only that patience is born out of enduring suffering but also that patience is virtuous "only if the cause for which that person suffers is good." It may not be a virtue to be patient with injustice!

One of the effects of reading this work was to make me want to read or re-read the works she explores in her book. Some, like The Great Gatsby or Ethan Frome, I read in high school. Her chapter on Cormac McCarthy's The Road and her discussion of hope amid the dystopian setting of the book intrigued me enough to pick up a copy of the book.

I do find it curious that all but one of the writers she chose were westerners of Caucasian descent. The exception is Shusaku Endo and his fine work, Silence, in which she explores the virtue of faith. Perhaps her selection reflects her own academic area as a professor of English whose research has focused in the area of Eighteenth century English literature and the work of the Eighteenth century women's writer, Hannah More. It might be valuable in future editions of this work (for which I hope!) to offer a reading list, perhaps organized around the virtues, of other great works, including those of non-Western authors and Western authors of color.

The book includes a discussion guide at the end, making this a great resource for reading groups, as well as for personal study. The work features delightful illustrations at the beginning of each chapter by artist Ned Bustard (who also drew the cover illustration).

Karen Swallow Prior makes a convincing case in this work for what many of us have intuited--that great literature can change our lives as we reflect on examples of virtue. And far from "spoiling" the great works she discusses, she opens them up in their possibility to instruct us such that we want to go out and read them for ourselves. But before you buy the works she discusses, I would suggest you pick up On Reading Well, because I believe it will enrich your reading of the other books.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
Profile Image for Lubinka Dimitrova.
252 reviews148 followers
Shelved as '77-pages-in-graveyard'
March 12, 2019
I'll refrain from actually rating this title. I can't resist books about books, but that is definitely ruled out in this case, since everything good about reading is wrapped in sanctimonious, moralistic sermons about how only through christianity people can know true virtue, kindness and mental equilibrium. I feel that the majority of non-religious people can discern good from evil just as well, if not much better than the self proclaimed christian saviors of humanity, so I'll leave the author preach to those who simply like having their beliefs praised and reaffirmed, and I'll try to find a book where practical solutions for people's issues are not relegated to some imaginary friend's divine assistance.
Profile Image for Jeremy.
Author 2 books217 followers
Want to read
April 7, 2022
I received an ARC paperback and read the forward and introduction on June 17–18, 2018. Promotional video here. Commendation here. Claremont review here. Patheos review here. Tony Reinke liked it. KSP article in CT about wisdom and literature (paywall). ByFaith review here. WORLD review here. See some content here.

Forward (Ryken) (pp. 9–11)
tradition of appreciating the moral dimensions of literature
Aristotle and Sidney ("winning the mind")
Enlightenment/modernity: decline in moral unity
Leavis's The Great Tradition

literary criticism: example theory (return to the great tradition) <— this is only one way of reading a text

goal: enhance literary appreciation and moral life of the reader

Prior includes Bible verses at the beginning of each chapter.
Booked: love of reading led to love of God; Milton's Areopagitica: virtue is choosing; read books "promiscuously"
definition of virtue (excellence)
literature embodies virtue: offering both images and vicarious practice
reading virtuously: close attention —> patience ; interpretation/evaluation —> prudence ; making time to read —> temperance
shortened attention span

To Read Well, Enjoy (16)
"pleasure makes practice more likely"
"one can't read well without enjoying reading"
"On the other hand, the greatest pleasures are those born of labor and investment"
read slowly
take notes; Billy Collins's "Marginalia"

Great Books Teach Us How (Not What) to Think (18)
positive and negative examples
CSL on the danger of "use" (vs. "reception")—don't go searching (only) for the moral (that's utilitarian)

Reading as Aesthetic Experience (19)
aesthetics is concerned with how something is said
Aristotle on catharsis and plot
"the act of judging the character of a character shapes the reader's own character"
reading is formative (Smith endnotes)
Sidney's Defense: lit. teaches by example, not precept (like philosophy and history)

Reading "After Virtue" (23)
Aristotle: living well = happiness
Enlightenment/modernity robbed Western civ. of a unified telos, glorifying God (McIntyre's After Virtue); emotivism: being driven by emotions (not just having them)

The Virtues of Literary Language (24)
understanding figurative language such as satire and allegory makes us better thinkers and interpreters
imagining virtuous action —> virtuous action; "good books . . . provide us with desires" (Proust)
"Certainly, reading great books is not the only way to cultivate virtue and achieve the good life. (Plenty of virtuous people I know and love don't love books.) But literature has a particular power in forming our visions of the good life" (27).
"actions follow affective response"
"There is no one right reading of a literary text—but there are certainly erroneous readings, good readings, and excellent readings"
Aristotle's NE and the virtuous mean
cardinal (prudence, justice, temperance, courage), theological (faith, hope, love), and heavenly virtues (chastity, diligence, patience, kindness, humility)

The great books that Prior looks at are Fielding's Tom Jones (prudence), Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby (temperance), Dickens's Tale of Two Cities (justice), Twain's Huck Finn (courage), Endo's Silence (faith), McCarthy's The Road (hope), Tolstoy's Death of Ivan Ilych (love), Wharton's Ethan Frome (chastity), Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (diligence), Austen's Persuasion (patience), Saunders's "Tenth of December" (kindness), and O'Connor's "Revelation" and "Everything that Rises Must Converge" (humility)
Profile Image for Erik Rostad.
312 reviews116 followers
January 5, 2022
I'm pretty sure Karen Swallow Prior has been wiretapping my wireless because this book addressed major questions I've been pondering for the past year. It's as though I've charted a new course in thinking. Dr. Prior uses each of the 12 chapters to tie a virtue to a work of literature. She also writes about the role of virtues in the Christian life in terms of which ones are practices developed by us and which derive from God (the cardinal vs theological virtues). Having just read some books on moral philosophy, this book tied together a number of the questions I had after reading the philosophers. It's rare that I read a book so perfectly timed to where I am in life. In fact, had I read this book just 3 months ago, it would not have packed the punch it did reading it at this exact moment.
Profile Image for Kris.
1,265 reviews169 followers
June 11, 2019
After only 30 pages I knew this one would be amazing. Her writing style is excellent. Every word counts. She pulls a lot of great ideas from other places, weaving together rich analysis. Good footnotes. There’s some flaws here and there, but I have to give it five stars.

She uses a piece of literature to cover one virtue in each chapter: prudence, temperance, justice, courage, faith, hope love, chastity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.

Thanks to the lovely Amy for gifting this to me. I have had Prior's Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me on my TBR for a while now, and have also eyed Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist thanks to Amy's recommendation. I'm looking forward to these reads next.
Profile Image for Michele Morin.
570 reviews24 followers
September 4, 2018
As a child, reading was my oasis, but it was not until I grew up, finished college, got married, and started reading aloud to a brood of boys that I began to realize it was not enough simply to read widely. I wanted to read well. In On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books, Karen Swallow Prior offers the insight that to read well, “one must read virtuously.” (15) One does this by reading closely, resisting the urge to skim, and by reading slowly, investing both time and attention into the words on the page. Books worth reading make demands upon the reader which are well-compensated: enjoyment, enrichment, and enhanced ability to think (and, therefore, to enjoy more books!).

Reading Virtuously
I have filled journal pages with extensive quotes just to capture and hold the sheer beauty of words. I have been formed by a love for fictional characters who somehow speak more wisdom than they realize and by authors whose view of the world made me want to peer through the same lens they were using. Looking through Karen Swallow Prior’s lens, I see that reading well is a virtue in itself, but it is also a path to further virtue:

“Literature embodies virtue, first, by offering images of virtue in action and, second, by offering the reader 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)

Therefore, On Reading Well is a book about twelve works of literature, but it is also about the twelve central virtues these works enflesh, either by their presence or by their glaring absence. For the believer, this is not simply a matter of academic interest or literary curiosity, but it is our life. The process of sanctification (becoming more virtuous) is a means of glorifying God, and a right understanding of this growth process is our best push-back against a second-rate righteousness in the form of a checklist that Christopher Smith has termed “moralistic therapeutic deism.” (36)

For me, one of the most fascinating themes running through Karen Swallow Prior’s twelve chapters is the continual pursuit of Aristotle’s “virtuous mean” expressed this way:

“Both the deficiency and the excess of a virtue constitute a vice.” (29)
Virtue, then, falls “between the extremes of excess and deficiency.” (29) We’ve all been plagued by and mired in relationship with people on both ends of the bandwidth. Diligence is a virtue, but . . .

There’s the excess of a perfectionistic, workaholic boss who has missed every ballgame and birthday party in the history of his family and can’t begin to imagine why you would need a Saturday off.
Then, there’s the deficiency of diligence in a malingering co-worker’s two-hour lunch breaks and slipshod attention to detail that leaves you always picking up the slack.
Skilled as I am at falling off Luther’s horse, the virtuous mean stopped me in my tracks to ponder which virtues I might be slaughtering–and in which direction.

Virtue and Vice in Literature
The Great Gatsby demonstrates out-of-control lack of temperance in the life of James Gatz (aka Jay Gatsby) set against the 1920’s American Prohibition movement that outlawed the sale of liquor, “a law so intemperate it could only result in vice.”

A Tale of Two Cities captures historical injustice caused by excess and personifies anger, “the vice that opposes the virtue of justice,” in the vengeful knitting of Madame Defarge who “furiously weaves into her knitting the names of all those destined for execution at the hands of the mob.” (77)

In this manner, On Reading Well analyzes twelve of the books you may have read courtesy of your own childhood library or bookmobile and invites you into the ones you missed. In a non-fiction format, Prior employs the most compelling aspects of fiction to take readers to a new level of understanding in their own reading life, and this is a great gift because “reading literature, more than informing us, forms us.” By reading well, we become better equipped to read more skillfully our own narrative arc, to ask ourselves the probing questions that reveal our motives and sift our hypocrisy as we trust for grace to live well.

Many thanks to Brazos Press for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.
Profile Image for Jay.
Author 1 book12 followers
October 17, 2018
In her introduction to her latest book, On Reading Well (Brazos Press, 2018), Karen Swallow Prior writes: “Reading well adds to our life . . . in the same way a friendship adds to our life, changing it forever.” Just as we cultivate our circle of friends and acquaintances (with an unfriend, unfollow, block, or mute), so too ought we to cultivate that other great shaper of character: our reading list, known to many as the TBR.

In an age when our worth - or at least the value of our words - is often determined by the number of our online friends, followers, likes, and mentions, it does us well to step back and consider the quality of those friends. The same goes for books. For, as Prior reminds us, “it is not enough to read widely”. How often I myself fall into that trap, constantly checking on my Goodreads Reading Challenge and comparing my own book count to those of my friends!

Prior immediately challenges the idea of what it means to read well. “The true worth of books is in their words and ideas, not their pristine pages.” Five shelves of books, their covers well-worn and well-loved yet their pages unblemished, stood over me in silent judgment.

Thus challenged, I took pencil in hand, underlining that sentence. It felt nearly sacreligious. By the end, though, it felt nearly sacramental, as I found myself transformed from a passive observer to Prior’s search to an active participant in a pilgrimage towards - as Prior puts it - finding the good life.
Those expecting an easily digestible listicle will be sorely disappointed. Drawing not only from her many years as a professor of literature but also from philosophers and theologians such as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and C.S. Lewis, Prior plays the Virgil to our Dante, guiding us through the twelve cardinal, theological, and heavenly virtues. Here, however, the whips and reigns that would compel us toward virtuous living are not Christian examples, per se, but rather works of classic literature. On Reading Well is to be savored.

That is not to say Prior’s writing is needlessly heavy. At times it is, as she challenges us to re-examine our self-perception and what we mean by “living the good life”. And yet, Prior is also personal, giving us brief glimpses into her private life and the thoughts, feelings, and emotions that go with it. She is practical without being partisan as she touches on American politics, both religious and secular. Prior is witty. She is not funny for funniness’ sake, but rather uses humor to effectively prove her point. Perhaps the most common lie told online is “lol”, but I genuinely laughed out loud when I saw F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as the novel chosen for “Temperance”.

Though each of Prior’s twelve chapters could stand on their own as a short essay, together they form a cohesive, powerful whole. Like the pages of an atlas or road map, On Reading Well directs us, through examining individual virtues, to our ultimate purpose: to love God and worship Him forever, “the Love that moves the sun and other stars”.
Profile Image for Joy C..
203 reviews113 followers
January 27, 2020
"Read books you enjoy, develop your ability to enjoy challenging reading, read deeply and slowly, and increase your enjoyment of a book by writing words of your own in it."

I LOVE THIS BOOK. I LOVE THIS BOOK. Really this book was a gem, a really great book about the life of reading and how to read well, diligently and virtuously - finding the good life through great books as the subtitle accurately suggests. I love the way the book is divided up into different chapters on the cardinal and theological virtues, and really the way Prior does a close-reading of her selected novels examining this virtue's presence or absence in the text is brilliant and wonderful because I see my professors do it a lot in class and I as well try it in my assignments, but coming at it from a "virtue" perspective is just so refreshing even while being academically sound and "literary". Ones that really stood out to me were A Tale of Two Cities and the theme of justice, Pilgrim's Progress and the theme of diligence, just to name two. But honestly each theme felt carefully selected and showed a richness of view not just of the literary works, but of the Christian life. It definitely made me ponder and opened my eyes to different aspects of the virtues I had taken for granted, like justice, faith, chastity and so forth.

ALSO THIS BOOK IS PERFECT TO INSPIRE YOU TO READ WELL, critically, richly, deeply. There are so many quotes in there I was underlining and soaking up on the reading life, habits to nurture and cultivate a meditative life.

"The language of literature can fill this gap between meaningful language about virtue and empty gestures toward it. The ability to understand figurative language, in which 'a word is both itself and something else,' is unique to human beings and, as one cognitive psychologist explains, 'fundamental to how we think' in that it is the means by which we can 'escape the literal and immediate.'"

I loved Prior's biography on Hannah More. This has cemented my love of her writing though. So thankful for professors and lovers of literature who embrace it from the abundance of a virtue-filled Christ-focused life.
Profile Image for Carol Bakker.
1,146 reviews77 followers
February 20, 2021
This book migrated around my tower of nightstand books since March 2018 when I bought it. I dipped in; it drifted to the bottom; I'd give it another go. Here's the thing: it's not an easy, nor a casual read, nor a jaunty read.

The 2021 hack I love to brag about has converted many books I've been meaning to read into books I have read. I look at my shelves, then search for an audio version available through my library. I borrow the audiobook and have 21 days to listen (#giveyourselfadeadline). There are limited borrows per month, so I prefer to finish on the first borrow. Often this means I listen while I walk or task (and occasionally consult the print book). The best attention I can give a book is to sit down, read, and listen concurrently. That's how I read On Reading Well.

KSP rolls out a plentitude of quotes on the 12 virtues she highlights, many that I copied. I enjoyed her personal notes and sort of memoir-ish parts.

Thinking about a certain book highlighting a certain virtue was delightful. Would you think of Patience while you read Persuasion? I took an inventory of recent reads and wondered what they illustrated.

I hadn't read Tom Jones and George Saunder's The Tenth of December, but now I will! I know — how painfully I know — I'm in a tiny minority, but I hated —no, I loathed— Shusaku Endo's Silence. Karen Swallow Prior didn't change my mind, but she gave me much to digest.

Profile Image for Samuel James.
47 reviews67 followers
August 27, 2018
On the one hand are rote worldview tests that strip stories and art down to their "good vs bad" parts. On the other hand is a cottage industry of "engaging culture" that usually translates into consuming whatever we like indiscriminately and calling it a Christian exercise. What I love most about this book is how Prior offers a roadmap for something better: Truly seeing reality along the light beams of great books with the aim of attaining Christian virtue. The sections that discuss virtue itself are not quite as strong as the literary analyses, and there's a disappointing lack of theological reasoning in some parts of the book. But those are mild critiques, because this book is genuinely insightful and empowering for Christians who love great stories.
Profile Image for grllopez ~ with freedom and books.
276 reviews95 followers
September 1, 2020
This book I read for pleasure but thought I would share it with others who may have seen it or heard about it and were curious. It is the kind of book that a reader who reads with intent would be interested. It is the kind of book that investment readers would write about, as Karen did. She took her own personal experiences and illuminated the moral lessons, or virtues, extracted from the books she read.

For more review: https://www.greatbookstudy.com/2020/0...
Profile Image for Elizabeth.
407 reviews23 followers
February 1, 2020
Most excellent read indeed!

“Reading well adds to our life...in the way a friendship adds to our life, altering us forever.”

“But the purpose in reading this novel—or any novel—is not to find definitive answers about the characters. It is rather to ask definitive questions about ourselves.”

“The act of judging the character of a character shapes the reader’s own character.”
Profile Image for Ashley.
213 reviews13 followers
May 20, 2021
This was a unique, inspiring, and informative read. I love both fiction and non so to see virtuous takeaways from fiction works made me feel like I'm not alone in seeking the same.

I now want to read all the books she discussed and be a better human to the glory of God! Great book!
1,181 reviews13 followers
July 7, 2019

Its been a few years since I abandoned a book, but this was an easy choice. It immediately began preachy/get-off-my-lawn. The digital world is rotting our brains, if only everyone got rid of all social media. Then within 20 pages revealed itself to be an attempt to justify reading all kinds of books "for the glory of god." The logical leaps needed to justify this premise were laughable. I made it about 40 pages.

I am always confused when Christians rely heavily on ancient Greek philosophers for justification of Christianity. They know those guys weren't Christians right?
Profile Image for Natalie Bassie.
40 reviews7 followers
February 16, 2021
I was never an English major, just someone who liked big ideas and words. So I took two elective classes with Dr. Prior during my senior year in college, and learned way more about English and life than I had anticipated. This book brought me back to the classroom, meaning, I felt like I was back in one of Dr. P's lectures with so much insight and knowledge to absorb! On Reading Well proves Dr. P's intelligent and tenderness in approaching life with gentleness. This book taught me much about great literature, but also about God. An excellent combo! Thank you, Dr. P!
Profile Image for Judi.
494 reviews
November 2, 2019
Gave interesting synopses of several literary works and provided different perspectives. Somehow I missed this was a Christian genre selection (consumed as an audiobook). While the Bible is often considered a literary work, the overwhelming reliance on Jesus references detracted from my overall enjoyment of the work - as I was originally expecting something less ‘biblical’. Still, interesting illustrations of virtues within selected literature.
March 2, 2021
I loved this book so much. It’s a book about virtue and a book about great literature. Prior’s writing is beautiful, rich, and thought provoking as she provides insight into great works of literature and encourages and challenges readers to slow down, think deeply, and read “promiscuously.”

I can’t recommend this book enough!
Profile Image for Todd Miles.
Author 3 books133 followers
March 4, 2019
Excellent book. Beautifully crafted and written. Deeply challenging. A thought provoking study on the virtues, cleverly drawing from great literature. So you get spiritual formation coupled with a literature study: two for the price of one!
Profile Image for Amy Morgan.
253 reviews22 followers
April 22, 2019
Don’t be afraid of this book. It’s not just about literature, it is about classical virtues. It’s almost an ethics primer. While I came away slightly challenged to read classics, I was mostly challenged to live virtuously and to find and enjoy what is good in creation, literature and beyond.
Profile Image for Anne White.
Author 30 books195 followers
December 26, 2019
Worth the read. My favourites were the chapters on Diligence (Pilgrim's Progress) and Humility (Flannery O'Connor's stories).
Profile Image for Kaley.
183 reviews19 followers
March 10, 2021
Nerdy review alert! I am a big Karen Swallow Prior fan, and was so pumped to read a book that paired discussion of a virtue with a classic book that features that virtue (right in line with a Classical approach to literature).

I did truly enjoy and appreciate all of the research she did on the historical and ecclesiastical significance of cardinal, theological, and heavenly virtues (and I think the footnotes would make an excellent booklist)!

This book, however, ended up being a bit of a cautionary tale for me. Prior showcased a technique I have often taken in teaching literature: sifting through a text searching for examples of vice and virtue. While I don't think this is a ill-intentioned approach, I did realize in reading this book that none of these discussions on virtue made me want to actually read the book she was focusing on. Instead, I felt like I had consumed a freeze-dried version of the book - with, granted, some very flavorful bits of moral philosophy on the side. My conclusion? The virtue/vice lens does, I think, take away some of the power and impact that stories can potentially wield. I'm going to be more cautious about how I use this approach in the future.
Profile Image for Matthew.
17 reviews16 followers
March 3, 2022
Welcome to 'Meaningful Narrative Tourism!' This was one of the most enjoyable reads. Highly recommend. With each new chapter you are given the opportunity to step into a new world/story, get a brief summary of the classic work of literature, and read as the author brilliantly extracts a virtue from the narrative. Definitely one of those books that 'demands something from you.' By that I mean there are words I had to define as well as sentences and paragraphs I had to read multiple times to understand. But through all that I was still captivated to see how it was going to pull together! I most likely will not take the time to read individually all of the classic works that the author examines through here. This made it feel like 'meaningful narrative tourism.' I knew I couldn't spend time 'living' in these books but the author made it incredibly enjoyable to 'visit' them!

Sidenote: reading this gave me a love for the etymology of words. How it "reveals so much about the history of ideas and worldviews, along with a deeper understanding of the concept." Similar to Hebrew in the Old Testament

I also hope that Meanigful Narrative Tourism doesn't come across in any negative sense.
Profile Image for Unchong Berkey.
157 reviews2 followers
March 10, 2019
Reading this book (listening, actually) was like experiencing a really good literature class. I loved Prior’s approach to reading some great works via virtue analysis. It made me want to re-think some of the books I’ve read (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, & Pilgrim’s Progress), and evoked curiosity to read some new ones (Persuasion, The Death of Ivan Ilych, & The Road).
Profile Image for Liz Baker.
148 reviews2 followers
June 26, 2020
This might be the most niche book ever, but if it is your niche, you will LOVE IT. I mean, it’s incredible. It’s probably going to sit on my nightstand for the rest of my life because I know I’ll look at it again and again. Part thesis on how reading fiction shapes our character in ways that other reading doesn’t. Part cultural commentary. Part spiritual formation. Part analyzing classic literature. See, it’s not for everyone 🤣 It took me a long time to get through, but it was so good. In case it’s not obvious, I highly recommend.
Profile Image for Courtney Cutshall.
17 reviews1 follower
January 31, 2021
Dr. Prior has led me to want to read every single one of the books mentioned in this work. So helpful, so fun, and so encouraging. A great way for this fiction-avoider to be reminded of the beauty and depth of these classic works.
Profile Image for Kirk.
453 reviews37 followers
November 9, 2018
I've only read the Persuasion chapter. Of which, I will try to comment on in the future.

"Of all Austen's characters, Anne Elliot is the one who is most lovable and most admirable. Elizabeth Bennet is lovable, but until she overcomes her pride, she is not entirely admirable. Fanny Price and Elinor Dashwood are perhaps Austen's two most admirable characters, but they are too passionless to be greatly lovable. Anne Elliot is both of these. She is so because she is self-possessed. In her patience, she possesses her soul."
-pg 203 "On Reading Well" by Karen Swallow Prior, Brazos Press 2018
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