(Review) On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior

Publisher and Publication Date: Brazos Press. 2018.
Genre: Christian nonfiction. Literary criticism.
Pages: 272.
Source: Self-purchase.
Audience: Christian readers of classic literature.
Rating: Very good.

link at Amazon

Karen Swallow Prior’s Goodreads page
Webpage

For more information about the book: On Reading Well

Summary:
Karen Swallow Prior chose classic literary works to match and define a particular virtue. Each work and virtue is carefully examined and supported with a Christian viewpoint.
Discussion questions for single or group readings are in the back of the book.

My Thoughts:
The front inside cover jacket doesn’t provide information for the summary.
The back cover provides one sentence for the summary.
These places provide reviews from well-known people in the Christian community.
It’s probably a choice made by the publisher about how to arrange the summary and reviews on the book cover. I’d prefer reading less reviews and more summary.

The foreword is by Leland Ryken. He served as a professor of English at Wheaton College. He is also an author. This link will take you to some of his articles at Crossway.
I’m familiar with Leland Ryken and enjoyed reading his foreword.

The introduction by Prior is 17 pages in length. It’s outstanding. I’ve read it several times and learn something new each time.
The introduction in a nonfiction book is necessary. It clues the reader to what the author wants to convey. It is a launching pad for the rest of the book.
The first sentence that caught my eye is on page 15: “But it is not enough to read widely. One must also read well. One must read virtuously.”
The word “virtue” means “excellence.”
I am a big reader. I’ve read 76 books this year; and, they are books from a variety of genres. But, do I read virtuously? No, not always. Sometimes I read to get finished, as if I am in race.
In the introduction, I am encouraged to read slow, to know what the words mean, and to think less about content and more about form.
I am not a slow reader. I back up often to reread pages, but I’m a fast reader. I take notes on what I read, and this pauses the reading race.
I haven’t considered focusing on form rather than content in a book of literature until now.
“The content of a literary work is what it says; its form is how it is said.” Page 19.

Each of the 12 chapters showcase a classic book to match a Christian virtue.
The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding—Prudence
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald—Temperance
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens—Justice
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain—Courage
Silence by Shusaku Endo—Faith
The Road by Cormac McCarthy—Hope
The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy—Love
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton—Chastity
Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan—Diligence
Persuasion by Jane Austen—Patience
“Tenth of December” by George Saunders—Kindness
“Revelation” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge” by Flannery O’Connor—Humility


One of my favorite chapters is one. This chapter is on prudence. “Prudence is wisdom in practice.” Page 34.
I’ve not read The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling. I know a little about the book from other sources.
In brief, the book was published in 1749. The setting is England. Tom Jones is a character that needs to learn prudence. He is not a wise person, but must have this virtue to marry Sophia.
What is the lesson for a modern day reader? To be careful, thoughtful, and diligent in living out wisdom with a wise goal in mind.

A second chapter is another favorite. In chapter 8, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton is a book I read several years ago. My memory of the story is it is depressing. Ethan Frome is a character who is oppressed and crushed by life.
Prior states chastity is a word people do not understand. It is a word that’s rarely used. It’s a word that seems like it belongs in a bygone era.
Prior explains chastity is the whole of one’s life, not just a virtue of not having sex. It is a virtue of a whole life. For example, a person who has chastity will act out love to another person in the right way and at the right time. A person who has chastity will not make a plan to have sex with another person outside their own marriage. They will control their mind and bodies to love the person they are married to. In my opinion chastity is related to other virtues.
There is one point I don’t agree with Prior. On page 167, “The marital relationship is singular in the way each partner shapes and forms the other. The good habits practiced by one partner contribute to the positive formation of the other.” I agree with her theory. I agree with the Bible readings from Ephesians. My problem is not all people are teachable. Not all people will listen. Not all marriages can be formed in a positive way, because one of them or both of them will not work towards maturity.


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