Just finished Karen Swallow Prior’s book On Reading Well and want to commend it to you. The book is organized by 12 chapters, each contemplating how a work of literature illustrates or illuminates a particular virtue.
Drawing from a rich tapestry of historic theologians and thinkers, Prior’s book is a wonderful introduction to the field of virtue ethics – ethics considered as becoming a truly more virtuous person.
My favorite chapter was on the virtue of love in The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy. I haven’t read Death, but I will now. I really appreciated Prior’s work distinguishing and exploring related themes to love such as sympathy, compassion, tenderness, sentimentalism, empathy. For example, she quotes Flannery O’Connor, “When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror.” And such tenderness “leads to the gas chamber,” since, Prior explains, tenderness will do anything to avoid pain. “Tenderness prefers death over suffering.” Whereas real charity/love “chooses to ‘suffer with,’ the literal meaning of compassion” (153). Surely we have numerous examples of this terrible tenderness in modern advocates of abortion and euthanasia.
A close second favorite chapter would probably be the chapter on patience and the book Persuasion by Jane Austin. Having just read Persuasion recently, I found Prior’s points repeatedly ringing true, and I appreciated some of the ways she pushed the themes into the corners and challenged me to think about the connections between patience, suffering, and passion.
Other highlights included her unapologetic appreciation for Pilgrim’s Progress (and the virtue of diligence) and it’s wonderfully puritan roots, despite the fact that Pilgrim’s Progress seems to be falling out of favor even among many of the theological heirs of the puritans. Perhaps this indicates our lack of true diligence!
I appreciated her notes on satire, as well a number of etymological connections I hadn’t previously noticed: for example the linguistic connection between kindness and kin, and humility and earthiness. There were occasional places where I sensed that I would have a different take on some current cultural issue or other, and a few places where I thought a really neat insight deserved to get a little more play in light of current cultural issues. But these were passing and very minor.
The overall work is just a delight to read. In a world that is often difficult to read well, we need more thoughtful, devotional, and encouraging works like this so that as we learn to read well, we might also learn to live well.