Stephen C. Magee
On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books, by Karen Swallow Prior. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2018, 267 pages, $17.99.
As part of a ministerial fraternal, I have enjoyed the benefits of prayer, conversation, and sharing a meal with Reformed preachers over many years. Here’s yet another way to strengthen ties among colleagues: We can read together.
Karen Swallow Prior's On Reading Well provides an outline for a sizable reading project for friends who would enjoy spending a year with some new and old “classics.” After a forward by Leland Ryken, Prior includes an introduction entitled “Read Well, Live Well.” This is an appropriate beginning to a book that pairs specific virtues with the author's recommended texts. As we learn to slowly enjoy well-written books, particularly when enhanced with edifying discussion among brothers, we engage in an activity that is good for our minds and useful in our ability to communicate to others as expositors of the Scriptures.
Human beings are created in the image of the God who has spoken to us through a collection of inspired writings in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. People can build character together when they enjoy shared metaphors with an attitude of respect for the way that an author has chosen to communicate. How much more when those who read and serve together agree on a confessional heritage affirming the primacy of the Bible as “the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him” (WSC Q. 2).
“Great books teach us how (not what) to think” (18). Here Prior comments on a quote by Thomas Jefferson:
While the ethical component of literature comes from its content (its ideas, lessons, vision), the aesthetic quality is related to the way reading—first as an exercise, then as a habit—forms us. Just as water, over a long period of time, reshapes the land through which it runs, so too we are formed by the habit of reading good books well. (19)
The twelve virtues and recommended readings are grouped into three categories:
Part One – The Cardinal Virtues
1. Prudence: The History of Tom Jones, Henry Fielding
2. Temperance: The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
3. Justice: A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
4. Courage: Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
Part Two – The Theological Virtues
5. Faith: Silence, Shusaku Endo
6. Hope: The Road, Cormac McCarthy
7. Love: The Death of Ivan Ilych, Leo Tolstoy
Part Three – The Heavenly Virtues
8. Chastity: Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton
9. Diligence: Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan
10. Patience: Persuasion, Jane Austen
11. Kindness: “Tenth of December,” George Saunders
12. Humility: “Revelation” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” Flannery O’Connor
Prior, a professor of English at Liberty University, provides us with chapters introducing each of the selected works, commenting not only on the meaning of the particular highlighted virtue, but also on the literary features that make each text worthy of our time. At the end of her volume, Prior has included discussion questions for each chapter.
One warning: The first book on Prior's list is the longest of the twelve. Fielding’s humor should help keep you interested, so don’t give up! Not a speed reader? Prior writes:
Don’t be discouraged if you read slowly. Thoughtfully engaging with a text takes time. The slowest readers are often the best readers, the ones who get the most meaning out of a work and are affected most deeply by literature. (17)
A final thought: Why not enjoy this or some other list of great fiction with a special friend or relative? The best literature can deepen the bonds of human connection for those who decide to experience excellence together.
Stephen Magee is the pastor of Exeter Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Exeter, New Hampshire. Ordained Servant Online, March 2019.