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About a Book: On Reading Well, by Karen Swallow Prior

March 5, 2019

Books about books have their own shelf in my home and a particularly favored place in my reading life. I can’t get enough of enthusiastic essays on author favorites, or pouring over book lists of fellow readers. I expected more of that from Karen Swallow Prior’s book, On Reading Well, but before the *excellent* introduction by Leland Ryken was over, I’d realized this book was something else entirely. There is no book list here, although you may find your personal “to be read” list growing as you read. 

 

This book is not about what to read, so much as it is about how to read well. The book begins by encouraging readers to heed (my favorite) advice from Milton to “read promiscuously” and adding to that her admonition to read virtuously. By “virtuously” she means, “reading closely, being faithful to both text and context, interpreting accurately and insightfully (p. 15).” 

 

“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 (p. 15).” 

 

Karen Swallow Prior provides a meditation on the formative power of stories and the value of traditional ideas about the virtues. The reading experience felt like an education in English literature by a warm and clever professor: one who loves literature as an aesthetic and enjoyable experience. I found this book to be a love letter to stories, the way they order our loves, and a deep appreciation for their ability to inform how we live.

 

“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 (p. 18).”  

 

The book is organized into three sections, with each section expanding on a set of virtues: cardinal, theological, and heavenly. For each virtue explored, a book is chosen that embodies the ideas of the virtue (either positively or negatively). The books used in these chapters tend toward familiar classics, she uses Silence by Shusaku Endo to illuminate the virtue of faith, The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald to explore temperance, and Persuasion by Jane Austen to consider the virtue of patience. You’ll find more enjoyment in the chapters on books you’ve read, but there is plenty of explanation and background information to keep you following along with the ones you have not. Prior doesn’t limit herself to the book featured in each chapter, she uses other works of literature, philosophy, and theology to inform her conclusions. On Reading Well is not the sort of book to read in one sitting. The chapters are readable, but dense. Each is so packed with ideas that I recommend savoring slowly, and leaving plenty of room for contemplation between chapters.

 

Read, enjoy, and come meet me for coffee to compare our favorite chapters. 

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Angie Burke is an avid lover of literature, photography, and people. She is married with three children.

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