Finding the Good Life Through Great Books

Reviews of On Reading Well, by Karen Swallow Prior

Even in the midst of an age dominated by screens, the pages of great books continue to form our hearts and shape our characters. Hear from two writers in the EFCA family about what they learned from Karen Swallow Prior’s new book, On Reading Well.

Learning to Read Virtuously

By Eric Nygren

Who gets to decide when a book becomes a classic of literature? Does it need to receive a literary prize to be labeled a classic, or does the book world just know a great work when it reads one? For many readers, evaluating what makes a good book great feels a lot like the subjective exercise of evaluating a work of art. We would like to think we have an eye for what is good, but sometimes we need a little help to appreciate what it is we’re looking at. Fortunately, Karen Swallow Prior has given readers a guide to navigate the vast gallery of great books.

In her new book, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books (Brazos Press 2018), recently named A Best Book of 2018 in Religion by Publisher’s Weekly, Prior takes readers on a tour of great literature, both classic and modern. Prior, a professor of English at Liberty University, examines 12 central virtues as depicted—both positively and negatively—in literature and encourages readers to begin to read well by learning to read virtuously (p. 15). Prior’s principle of reading virtuously is grounded in the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle’s system of virtue ethics, and in particular, his concept of “the virtuous mean” (p. 29).

This new world of reading is still theologically rich and immensely practical.

I found this sliding scale—with moral excellence at the center, bounded by a total deficiency on the one end and too much of a good thing on the other—to be a helpful rubric in discerning the integrity of fictional characters. Prior shows that identifying a virtuous character is more than just separating the good guys from the bad. For example, one character’s prideful vanity may be easy to spot and highly unattractive. But how do you discern a great act performed out of a sense of false humility versus one enacted out of a genuinely humble self-assessment?

After spending time with On Reading Well, a reader may feel the urge to pick up one or two of the great books Prior surveys. Whether it’s a book that should have been read in high school, such as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, or a more modern selection, such as George Saunders’ Tenth of December, Prior’s tour through the gallery made me want to come back and take a longer look.

Pastors and church leaders who are more accustomed to reading theological works and books focused on practical ministry concerns might find that Prior’s book opens the door to a greater world of reading that can easily be neglected or undervalued. And yet this new world of reading is still theologically rich and immensely practical, as Prior skillfully shows by bringing in biblical themes and Christian values as they relate to each of the virtues under examination.

Eric Nygren serves as the associate pastor of the Evangelical Free Church of Bemidji, Minnesota. He and his wife, Lindsay, have three daughters. Follow Eric on Twitter: @eric_nygren.

How Great Books Train Us to Love Virtue and Reject Vice

By Grace Youlden

Sara Crewe, Lucy Pevensie and the March sisters were among my favorite childhood companions. I’d met them in the pages of my favorite books (A Little Princess, the Chronicles of Narnia and Little Women, respectively), and I returned to them often. They taught me courage, faithfulness and the value of controlling my temper in spite of provocation. I wanted to be worthy of their friendship.

Reading has continued to hold a high place in my life and family. Reading aloud to my children, sharing my favorite books and discovering new ones, has been one of my greatest privileges as a mother. The books we share give us language to discuss many important topics and issues before they arise in real life. Recently, hearing from my daughter that her King Arthur class at a state university is almost as good as a Bible study warms my heart. I feel the same way as I read Les Misérables this semester while homeschooling her younger sister.

Karen Swallow Prior’s book On Reading Well shows how the “great books,” or those that compose the canon of Western literature, help train us to love virtue and reject vice, expanding our experience vicariously as we live in different characters and situations. Her book, after a wonderful introduction, is divided into chapters that illustrate her thesis by linking one of twelve virtues each to a different work, such as A Tale of Two Cities or The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Is it possible that extended reading time of the great books could be a spiritual discipline in our distracted age?

The books Prior chooses are a wide sampling of acknowledged classics and more modern offerings. Her analysis of each inspires the desire to read or reread the books discussed, as well as a desire to grow in displaying the virtue revealed. It is a joy to uncover more meaning in old favorites. I only wish that she could have included a book list for further reading and a list of children’s books that could direct a bedtime reading plan.

My city hosts a “One Book, One Community” effort every year, where all are encouraged to read and discuss the same book. What would it be like if a church family did the same thing? Perhaps the church could choose a classic that its high school students were already required to read. Prior’s framework of virtue reminds me of the way of interpreting the Old Testament that considers how each prophet, priest or king measured up to the truest and final example in Jesus. On the whole, she proposes a model of reading that can be enriching to all of us.

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about spiritual formation by Dallas Willard. His focus on the formation of the heart and will and thus the whole self has renewed my hope in continuing sanctification and encouraged me to take a more active role in that growth. Part of that active role will entail rejecting the lure of various screens and time wasters in order to focus on spiritual disciplines. Is it possible that extended reading time of the great books could be a spiritual discipline in our distracted age? If the great books can help us find the good life of virtue in Christ, as Prior contends, then the answer must be yes!

Grace Youlden is a member of Salem Evangelical Free Church in Fargo, North Dakota, where she serves as a Bible study leader. She has homeschooled two daughters and frequently teaches literature classes to groups of homeschooled students. Grace has also served as a staff member for a campus ministry for nearly 25 years.

How have you been spiritually formed by great books? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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