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:
- Prudence: The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding
- Temperance: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Justice: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
- Courage: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
- Faith: Silence by Shusaku Endo
- Hope: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
- Love: The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy
- Chastity: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
- Diligence: Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
- Patience: Persuasion by Jane Austen
- Kindness: “Tenth of December” by George Saunders
- 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!