Book Review: On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior (+ a new reading challenge)

On Reading Well – Karen Swallow Prior (Brazos Press, 2018)

In On Reading Well, Karen Swallow Prior examines the idea of virtue by examining twelve works of fiction, one for each virtue. The book is divided into three sections: The Cardinal Virtues (Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Courage); The Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope, and Love); and The Heavenly Virtues (Chastity, Diligence, Patience, Kindness, and Humility). For each chapter, Prior examines a virtue through the lens of a different novel. For example, she discusses Prudence by looking at Henry Fielding’s classic novel, Tom Jones or Hope through The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

The novels are all what might be called classics, some newer than others. She also includes three short stories, one by George Saunders and two by Flannery O’Connor. While Prior takes a Christian view of virtue, the stories themselves are not what we would think of as blatantly Christian ones, nor are the authors all Christians themselves. In some the virtue explored is perhaps more obvious than in others.

It’s a rather ambitious project but an interesting one to read along with. Prior is clearly an avid and enthusiastic reader but as she states in her introduction, she believes, “It is not enough to read widely. One must also read well.” In this book she celebrates fiction as a means to bring out the best in people. To challenge ourselves and to re-examine our worldview through reading the stories of others, even if those stories are made up.

Virtue itself is a bit of an old-fashioned word and looking at the virtues outlined in the Table of Contents, they too might be deemed old-fashioned. After all, when was the last time our society praised Prudence, Temperance, or Chastity? (Aside from maybe those weird Purity Balls I hear about from the American South?) I appreciated the way Prior delves into each virtue, outlining a bit of its etymology to explain what the word meant in its original use. This gives a stronger context in which to explore the virtue itself. She comes at each virtue from a very Christian perspective, one which I largely appreciated but might be more alienating for a non-Christian reader.

This book is a unique mix of literary criticism and theological thought and one I quite enjoyed. That’s obviously not a combination that will attract every reader but I think Prior did well in choosing her audience and sticking to it. I think books can be an amazing doorway into deeper thought and new explorations and it’s delightful to see that celebrated as Prior does.

Of the ten novels and three short stories, I’ve previously read six of the novels and two of the stories. I own six of those novels, which is a sign that I read them and enjoyed them quite a lot. The first chapter focuses on Prudence and Tom Jones, a book I had never read before. Feeling like I might get more out of Prior’s work if I was more familiar with the referenced books, I picked up Tom Jones from the library. (I tried it on e-book first, which didn’t work for me, and didn’t initially realize that it’s over 800 pages long!)

Seeing that I already loved and owned several of the books Prior references, I decided I wanted to read all of the stories mentioned in On Reading Well and thus A Virtuous Reading Challenge was born!

My goal is to read all of the referenced works from On Reading Well, including re-reading the ones I’ve already read as it’s been some years since I’ve read most of them. After each read, I will re-read the relevant chapter by Prior and see how my thoughts compare and what I’ve learned about virtue. I’m not setting a particular timeline for this but Tom Jones is the longest on the list so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hope to complete this challenge in 2021.

Here’s the full list:

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

Have you read any of these? I’m curious to know if people clearly see the connections between the books and the virtues Prior attaches to them!

27 thoughts on “Book Review: On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior (+ a new reading challenge)”

  1. I’ve read 1-4 and 7-10 (as well as Prior’s book). I, too, grabbed hold of Tom Jones after reading On Reading Well. I made it through the book, but truth be told: the only thing I now remember of it (a few years later) is that I read it.

    1. For the most part, I’m enjoying Tom Jones though I do have to remind myself to keep reading it! Did you read any others based on Prior’s writing?

  2. Ooh, you should get some great classics reading out of this project! Even if some of them are already familiar to you it can be fun to look back at classics with different themes or contexts in mind, I think.
    I’d be curious about how Prior approaches some of these, like with The Great Gatsby, which seems to demonstrate a LACK of temperance? But I can see how that could be used to make the same point. I remember Persuasion focusing more on communication and advise than patience, but it’s been a while, and the reader’s patience certainly pays off in the end, so there’s that!

    1. That’s what I think too! The ones I have read are largely books I really enjoyed so I don’t mind a reason to re-read them. The Great Gatsby is definitely approached as an example of Not Temperance but she approaches it as Temperance being about more than just alcoholic consumption. I’ve never read Persuasion so I’ll have to see how that fits in with Prior’s thoughts on Patience.

  3. I find these choices fascinating. Like you, I’ve read six. Some seem obvious links to me, like patience to Persuasion, and justice to A Tale of Two Cities. Others would need more thought – temperance to The Great Gatsby, for example, (though, yes, I guess I could make that argument, maybe, in a kind of reverse sense) and I’d have to give some real consideration to courage for Huck Finn (the only one of the six I’ve read that I don’t rate highly, which doubtless colours my view). Ethan Frome for chastity blows my mind a bit – I’m intrigued as to why she chose it and how she links them. But the one that I find most interesting is the choice of The Road for hope. I’ve read so many reviews of it calling it utterly bleak and despairing (which it mostly is) but I felt the ending was a real allegory of faith and hope in the idea of rebirth. I shall look forward to hearing your thoughts on the books and the virtues as you go through the challenge!

    1. Some of them are definitely more of a reverse example (The Great Gatsby for sure). I haven’t read Ethan Frome so I can’t say much on that connection. The Road is very very bleak but I can also see how you could connect it to hope. I think it will be interesting to read or reread the books with these ideas in mind and see if I agree with them.

  4. I’ve read the O’Connor stories and Huck Finn. It would drive me bonkers that nearly everyone on this list is a guy. There are classic women’s books, too, so I’m wondering to what extent this author really searched around. . .

    I will say, as someone who went through writing programs, that I do not agree with the advice that “It is not enough to read widely. One must also read well.” It’s difficult to recognize what is poor writing, plotting, and characterization without seeing it in action and analyzing it. When I was teaching fiction writing at Notre Dame, the first book we read when we got to the workshop portion of the semester was a collection of fiction I thought was poorly done, and the students had the freedom to figure out why (without first experimenting on a poor, unsuspecting student and his/her story! Why do other professors do that???).

    1. There are definitely not enough women here. And it’s not even like she chose old classics because The Road and the Saunders are relatively recent!

      I can agree with what you’re saying about reading well vs reading widely though I do think that there comes a point when you know what bad writing is and you can probably stop searching it out! Unless that’s what you enjoy! And then, go for it – reading bad writing doesn’t hurt anybody else.

  5. This sounds fascinating – I haven’t read that many of these, though there are several on my TBR, so I will be very interested to see what you make of them as you work through the challenge. And yes, I too wonder how The Great Gatsby could be linked with temperance (except as a cautionary tale).

    1. I’m interested in how/why she chose the books she did because several of them seem more like cautionary examples than positive examples of the virtues.

  6. This sounds like a fun (and very unique!) reading challenge! I’ve always been afraid to read The Road so I look forward to your review of that one in particular. 🙂

    1. That one I’ve read before and I don’t know if I’m looking forward to re-reading it. It’s intense! I first read it along with a co-worker who had recently become a dad and he said it was hard to read as a parent so we’ll see how I do this time around.

  7. This sounds like fun! There are good books on the list. I’ve read #2,3,4,6, and 10. I can definitely see the connection between Persuasion and patience!

  8. I’m currently reading Prior’s book and think its fascinating. I haven’t read many of these but look forward to reading The Death of Ivan Ilych and Silence.

    1. I found it really fascinating too and it’s been interesting to read some of the books with her writing in mind. Ivan Ilych and Silence are both excellent and I’m hoping to re-read them in the next few months.

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