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On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books

4.37  ·  Rating details ·  1,381 ratings  ·  360 reviews
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 ...more
Hardcover, 272 pages
Published September 4th 2018 by Brazos Press (first published September 2018)
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Jesse Kane Yes. The book's chapter outline follows Virtue ethics through a traditional Catholic outline; the Cardinal virtues, the Theological virtues, and final…moreYes. The book's chapter outline follows Virtue ethics through a traditional Catholic outline; the Cardinal virtues, the Theological virtues, and finally the Heavenly virtues. K.S.P. herself seems to be Baptist. Some of the literature discussed is naturally Christian, following the outline: For example, the section on faith utilizes the story of 'Silence,' where Jesuit missionaries are persecuted in Japan.

This being said, the author doesn't try to shove Christian morality down your throat like a shoddy pureflix film might. K.S.P. does a stand-up job of illustrating how reading literature has the capacity to form virtue in any reader, Christian, Muslim, or Atheist alike. (less)

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Cindy Rollins
Oct 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 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
Jun 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
[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 boo ...more
Oct 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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 enjoye
Sep 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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 th
Lubinka Dimitrova
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 p ...more
May 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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 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.

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 Traditio
Joy C.
Jan 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing
"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 theolo
Elizabeth • whatelizabethreads
Most excellent read indeed!

“Reading well adds to our 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.”
Michele Morin
Sep 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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 attenti ...more
Oct 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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 ofte
Unchong Berkey
Mar 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
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). ...more
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, s
Anne White
Worth the read. My favourites were the chapters on Diligence (Pilgrim's Progress) and Humility (Flannery O'Connor's stories).
Samuel James
Aug 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
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 itsel ...more
Todd Miles
Mar 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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!
Amy Morgan
Apr 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: spirituality
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.
Christina Von Moll
Jan 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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!
Annie Monson
To me, this book was an inspiration and kindred spirit, a feast.
Brian Langford
May 21, 2020 rated it really liked it
Great book that beautifully reminds us why we need good literature. In an age of tweets, outrage and short attention spans this book reminds us of the power of story. I enjoyed each chapter and hope to read (well!) a few of the novels. I appreciated this quote from the Faith chapter:
“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.” This is why we need books and great stories.
Aug 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
Really excellent look at literature and the virtues. Not only do I want to take Karen’s classes, I want to write like she does! Her style and cutting wit is everything I’ve ever wanted my own literature and philosophy writing to be!
Feb 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2019-books-read
Reading books about books and reading is very gratifying. Karen Prior has accomplished the telos of reading in a way that will stay with me for a long time. Reading towards virtues like patience, temperance, kindness, diligence, and humility is a great mercy. I believe this book will be my favorite of the year in non-fiction genre. A perfect preface to a year of reading. Get this book and savor it. And you may discover new authors to explore and fill the empty spaces on your bookshelf.
Feb 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Karen Swallow Prior has written a wonderful masterpiece of a book. I had to read it slowly. There was so much to think about, so much to learn, so much of my chaff to blow away... It is so much more than a book about books. I highly recommend it.
Nathaniel Martin
Nov 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I honestly can’t give you a good reason not to read this book.
Oct 08, 2018 rated it it was amazing
"All literature - stories most obviously - centers on some conflict, rupture or lack. Literature is birthed from our fallenness: without the fall, there would be no story."

This book is gem. We live in a utilitarian, functional, and secularized culture, and it is no surprise that when we look at literature, probe its meanings, we look for plot, theme, character, and the like. Yet we forget an important aspect, to look for what is edifying, for what is good, true, and beautiful, in other words, we
May 04, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: virtues, literature
This book is a treasure! Particularly for an adult who has not had the advantage of education in the humanities, I found this book truly wonderful for entering into the moral meaning that can be soaked up from good literature.

If you are interested in literature and in living life well, I recommend this book highly to you!


1: Prudence - Fielding, Henry - The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling
2: Temperance - Fitzgerald, F. Scott - The Great Gatsby
3: Justice - Dickens, Charles - A Tale of Two
Nov 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This was really a great read about, well, reading well. If you enjoy literary analysis and/or are interested in the virtues, this is the book for you.

A wonderfully eclectic sampling of literature. The author discussed some of my favorite books, some that have been on my to-read list for a long time, some I'd never heard of but sound wonderful, and some I have no interest in reading whatsoever. Every chapter was insightful, interesting, and taught me things about the most constructive way to dige
George P.
Aug 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
For as long as I can remember, I have loved to read. My father was a pastor and my mother was a teacher, so there were always books around the house — preeminently the Bible, but also works of fiction and nonfiction. I never caught flak for reading as such, but my mom would sometimes look askance at me when I told her I was reading fiction.

Fiction is weird. Pablo Picasso wrote, “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.” Leland Ryken, my college English profess
Jan 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I really loved the way that Swallow Prior took the virtues and connected each of them with a classic literature piece. The two things you have to be ok with are that it is explicitly Christian and explicitly Dead White Man Classic*. If you are ok with those things (and I am,) it was an amazing, edifying read.
*The two female exceptions were Jane Austen (Persuasion,) and Flannery O'Conner (Everything that Rises Must Converge,) and the one living was George Saunders (Tenth of December.)
Joel Wentz
Mar 03, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I expected to enjoy this, but was shocked by how much I loved it. Prior guides the reader through a masterful introduction to classical notion of the virtues, virtue ethics, and engaging discussions of popular literature. Every chapter is a joy to read, and thought-provoking in different ways. Prior's writing is also airtight - there are no wasted words - and is remarkably well researched and footnoted throughout. As a reader, you simply feel like you are in safe hands.

Plus, the introduction, in
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Karen Swallow Prior is Professor of English at Liberty University and an award-winning teacher. She is a contributing writer for The and for Christianity Today, where she blogs frequently at Her.meneutics. Her writing has appeared in Relevant, Think Christian, and Salvo. She is a Research Fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, a mem ...more

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There are many ways to take action against racism. Reading in order to learn more about oppression and how to oppose it is just one of those ways...
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“Indeed, there is something in the very form of reading—the shape of the action itself—that tends toward virtue. The attentiveness necessary for deep reading (the kind of reading we practice in reading literary works as opposed to skimming news stories or reading instructions) requires patience. The skills of interpretation and evaluation require prudence. Even the simple decision to set aside time to read in a world rife with so many other choices competing for our attention requires a kind of temperance.” 6 likes
“To read well is not to scour books for lessons on what to think. Rather, to read well is to be formed in how to think.” 6 likes
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