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The Virtues of On Reading Well

In 2012, a writer for The Atlantic brought to readers’ attention the decline of virtues in our vocabulary. Over the last hundred years, people were writing less and less about sincerity, patience, or mercy. Researchers noticed a sharp decline in “virtue words”: “People simply do not think/talk/write about morality and virtue much anymore. The vocabulary for talking about issues of good and bad, right and wrong thus seems to be shrinking.” Without the vocabulary for virtue, our shared moral framework begins to disintegrate.

Of course, this was not the first time such an argument had been made. George Orwell argued in 1946 that “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” If we are to “step toward political regeneration,” Orwell wrote, then we need to “fight against bad English.” Is there a difference between values and virtues? Can courage be redefined as teenage rebellion? Is temperance merely a virtue for AA members?

To return us to virtue, Karen Swallow Prior educates readers in the meaning of the words and instructs us in how to read stories which embody these goods. Her book On Reading Well is actually a guide on how to “Live Well,” as her book jacket indicates. She walks us through the forgotten virtues of prudence, temperance, courage, and wisdom, those lauded in classical thought, as well as the theological and heavenly virtues of faith, hope, love, chastity, patience, kindness and humility.

For instance, Prior teaches readers that prudence means “the ability to foresee,” and thus the word connects to providence: it refers “to the actions of human beings based on foreseeing the consequences of a course of action and choosing accordingly.” The reexamination of these virtue words, such as prudence, occurs in every chapter. “It’s helpful,” Prior notes, “to look at the etymology of the word [because words’] own stories can reveal so much about the history of ideas and worldviews, along with a deeper understanding of the concept.”  If these words “have become as worn as poker chips,” as Walker Percy says, then Prior rediscovers them for us, re-grooving the edges.

More than the words themselves, Prior examines lives that try to model these virtues. “We must imagine what virtue looks like in order to act virtuously.” She aligns each virtue with a great text, from Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones to Shusaku Endo’s Silence; her selection of titles ranges from 17th to 21st century, from Japanese to European to American. And, somehow, Prior strikes a balance, explaining the works for those who have not read them without resorting to tedious summaries.

She begins her book with an outline on how to read virtuously. In a memoir Booked, Prior explored the benefits of reading books “promiscuously,” but here, she insists: “[I]t is not enough to read widely. One must also read well.”  She encourages reader to make the time for reading with attention, patience, and temperance, to practice the very virtues that these books will instill in us. Like Sir Philip Sidney and Protestant saint C.S. Lewis, Prior notes that we should read for more than information; we ought to find enjoyment there. Each book should be a delight, even as these books make demands on us to become more than we are. Prior instructs us to read slowly and take notes (instruction that Lewis would abhor). Most significantly, literature should be approached as art; we are not merely to take from books what content we desire, but to appreciate the aesthetic nature of each work.

In defense of the approach that she undertakes, to explicate the virtues a reader will experience in various great books, Prior draws on a host of philosophers: Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, James K.A. Smith, and others. She reminds readers how to find meaning rather than mere utility in the practice of reading. To broaden our perspective, develop our character, and enjoy the beauty of a text, we must read deeply. Prior’s introduction should be required reading for every literature class in high schools and universities across the country.

Actually, the whole book should be required reading. For more than a decade, I have been teaching how the greatest books in the canon transform not only our minds but also our characters. When I picked up On Reading Well, I assumed it was a book I could have written. However, I was wrong. By placing texts in conversation with one another—Prior reads Austen with Flannery O’Connor, for example—Prior shows us how experience is “a way of knowing that sharply contrasts with revelation.” Her close reading of The Road finds God where Cormac McCarthy only draws His absence. Prior reads Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych beside her aging father’s hospital bed, and the text draws out her personal fears about death and its long shadow. It is not only the words that Prior revitalizes in this book, but also the virtues themselves, displayed through the characters that Prior reacquaints with her readers.

Several times in this review, I have used words with the prefix “re” (case in point): reexamine, redefine, revitalize, reacquaint. The prefix is Latin for “again,” but may have an older root meaning “to turn.” In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis writes,

If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road…. I think if you look at the present state of the world it’s pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistakes. We’re on the wrong road. And if that is so we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on.

When it comes to virtue, we are on the wrong road. As our poor usage of words attests, we do not know what “virtuous” means, let alone how to live it. In a time that is after virtueas Alasdair MacIntyre’s book describes it, Prior’s On Reading Well turns us back to virtue.

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