Illustrations by Ned Bustard
If the winter weather inspires you to curl up with a book, your cozy reading chair can become not just an escape but a classroom. Time spent reading can be time spent learning virtue.
In her latest book, “On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books,” Karen Swallow Prior asserts that great works of literature embody virtue by offering readers a picture of virtue in action and providing the opportunity to practice virtue vicariously through the book’s characters. While vicarious practice isn’t quite the same as acting virtuously in real life, Prior writes, it is “nonetheless a practice by which habits of mind, ways of thinking and perceiving, accrue.”
Prior, an English professor at Liberty University, explores 12 great literary works (nine novels and three short stories) and one virtue displayed in each work. By “virtue,” she means excellence, and Prior divides the virtues into three categories: cardinal virtues (prudence, temperance, courage, justice), theological virtues (faith, hope, love), and heavenly virtues (chastity, diligence, patience, kindness, humility).
The cardinal virtues come first because ancient Greek and Christian philosophies agreed that these four virtues were the ones on which all others depended. The theological virtues come straight from Scripture, particularly 1 Corinthians 13:13. And the heavenly virtues (along with charity and temperance) were traditionally considered antidotes to the seven deadly sins.
“Even as you seek books that you will enjoy reading, demand ones that make demands on you. Books with sentences so exquisitely crafted that they must be reread, familiar words used in fresh ways, new words so evocative that you are compelled to look them up, and images and ideas so arresting that they return to you unbidden for days to come.”
A Literary Apologist
Prior has opened her own literary life to readers since the publication of her first book in 2012, called “Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me.”In it she described how books shaped her beliefs, life, and worldview. Over time a love of books led her to a deeper love for the Author of her faith.
“On Reading Well”continues these themes and makes the case to readers that books can shape their lives, too. But virtuous reading — while satisfying, enjoyable, and a wholly worthwhile escape — requires effort. And many Americans aren’t willing to make it.
A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2018 found that 24 percent of American adults had not read a book — whether print, digital, or audio format — in whole or in part during the past year. A 2016 Pew survey found that 19 percent of Americans had never been to a library.
Americans spend less time in books than did previous generations, but they spend more time in front of screens. Common Sense Media’s research found that parents spend a daily average of nine hours and 22 minutes in front of computers, tablets, and smartphones for work or personal use.
Screens have become increasingly addictive, and, like any addiction, the pull rewires our brains. Researchers with the Association for Consumer Research studied the effect of smartphones on the user’s ability to concentrate and concluded “even when people are successful at maintaining sustained attention — as when avoiding the temptation to check their phones — the mere presence of these devices reduces available cognitive capacity.”
Prior understands this draw toward the screen and sees it in herself. So she takes the time to make the case to all her students that reading great literature matters in shaping both heart and mind.
“Our brains work one way when trained to read in logical, linear patterns and another way when continually bouncing from tweet to tweet, picture to picture, and screen to screen,” Prior observes in “On Reading Well.”
The discipline of reading not only trains the brain to work in a linear direction and concentrate for longer periods of time, it is critical to becoming a strong writer, a connection lost on nonreaders. At Liberty, Prior teaches courses for English graduate students, English undergraduates, and students not majoring in English, and she said her students often miss the link between reading great literature and becoming skilled writers.
“We’re getting — across the board — English majors who choose English because they want to write fan fiction, blogs, or video games,” Prior said. “They want to be published authors but have not been taught that reading well is necessary to writing well. So I’m an apologist for reading literature.”
What and How to Read
The introduction to “On Reading Well” gives readers a brief guide to the nature of virtuous reading. To start reading well, one must read “promiscuously,” meaning reading a variety of books and genres. Prior borrows this phrase from John Milton, who believed virtue meant choosing good over evil; in order to choose good, one must recognize evil and consciously make the wise choice.
The purpose was to weigh and judge one idea against another, discern flawed arguments, and choose truth. When it comes to books that form one’s conscience, Christians naturally look to the Bible. Next they turn to books about the Bible — commentaries, theological works, and devotionals.
But this pragmatic approach to reading and moral formation omits the opportunities for character development that come from stories. Great literary fiction also shows truth, but readers must immerse themselves in the story to ascertain the truth.
“Modern 21st-century Christians have been influenced by an attitude that emphasizes pursuit of the practical. We want information and ideas to be straightforward,” Prior says. “Great literature tells great truths, but you comprehend them indirectly by experiencing the story. A constant diet of nonfiction information and ideas might be lacking in experiences that make us more empathetic and able to interpret situations. We will be different types of people depending on the kinds of things we read.”
Since practice makes perfect, pleasurable practice makes practice possible.
Readers should not be ashamed to read what they enjoy, Prior says, but she challenges them to not stop there. Some types of fiction might be fun to read but yield no intellectual, aesthetic, or spiritual rewards that creep in long after the final page.
“Even as you seek books that you will enjoy reading, demand ones that make demands on you,” Prior writes. “Books with sentences so exquisitely crafted that they must be reread, familiar words used in fresh ways, new words so evocative that you are compelled to look them up, and images and ideas so arresting that they return to you unbidden for days to come.”
The challenge with books that offer such beauty and inspiration is that readers cannot appreciate them in a quick skim. Reading that cultivates virtue is slow and deep, not the scanning to which the digital age has made us accustomed. So Prior urges readers to read slowly, being attentive to language and tone and interacting with the text in one’s mind as well as penciling notes in the margin.
Even the patience and discipline of understanding a great work of literature afford readers the opportunity to practice virtue.
Reading for Truth
Reading well also reminds readers that they are part of a larger story of God’s drama of redemption. The 21st century is not the first act in that drama, and 21st-century sins are not unique.
When readers experience the miscarriages of justice Charles Dickens describes in “A Tale of Two Cities,” they see that cultures have been advocating for justice and thwarting justice for ages. Readers can take comfort from knowing that the current age is not the first one to face issues of justice.
In the same way, reading about the intense persecution endured by Christians in Shusaku Endo’s “Silence” reminds readers that our chief end is to glorify God, not pursue our own happiness.
As reading literature shows readers what is true, “On Reading Well” gives readers an introduction into great works of literature they might want to read for the first time or revisit with fresh eyes.
Prior hopes “On Reading Well” will give readers “more confidence that they can read challenging works of literature and a greater desire to read more good literature and read it well.”
The reading chair is waiting.
About the Illustrator
“On Reading Well” features 13 original illustrations from author, illustrator, and printmaker Ned Bustard. Bustard is the graphic designer for World’s End Images and Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA). He is also creative director for Square Halo Books Inc., curator of the Square Halo Gallery, and serves on the boards of the Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art (ASCHA) and The Row House Inc.
Bustard has written, illustrated, and edited many books, including “It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God,” the Veritas Press “Legends & Leagues” series, “Squalls Before War: His Majesty’s Schooner Sultana,” “The Chronicles of Narnia Comprehension Guide,” “Bede’s History of ME,” “History of Art: Creation to Contemporary,” Crossway’s “Church, Reformation, and Bible History ABCs,” “A Book for Hearts & Minds: What You Should Read and Why,” “Every Moment Holy,” and “Revealed: A Storybook Bible for Grown-Ups.” A ruling elder at Wheatland Presbyterian Church, Bustard lives in the West End of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Megan Fowler is a writer and editor for byFaith Magazine. She is based in Grove City, Pennsylvania, where she lives with her husband and three sons.