A few years back author Zadie Smith likened the contemporary model of reading to that of a person watching a film. We expect a full course of entertainment in return for passive engagement, at best. This poses a striking contrast with the classical model, which Smith compared to an amateur musician who utilizes his or her skills to perform a piece composed by someone with superior skill. The more challenging the musical arrangement, the more the experience both honors the composer’s talent and sharpens the amateur’s abilities.
Increasingly, researchers are registering concerns about the modern state of reading. With the rise of smartphones and tablets and their subsequent distribution of instant Internet access, studies continue to surface the negative effects they pose ranging from cognitive capacity and comprehension skills to eye strain and sleep deprivation. Technology educates. It trains us in our habits and appears to be growing in its capacity for churning out tweet-sized attention spans.
But reading affects more than cognition, as Dr. Karen Swallow Prior argues in her latest book, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books. While plenty of works examine the cognitive effects of contemporary reading habits, Prior focuses on the inner life.
Virtuous reading informs how we think.
Aristotle described literature as an education of the emotions. Whereas tomes and treatises present their arguments in rational form, fiction accomplishes something similar reaching beyond merely the intellect to our affections by presenting virtue in action.
Prior describes it this way in her introduction: “Literature embodies virtue, first, by offering images of virtue in action, and, second, by offering the reader vicarious practice in exercising virtue, which is not the same as actual practice, of course, but is nonetheless a practice by which habits of mind, ways of thinking and perceiving, accrue.” Books have beliefs and what they believe matters just as much as the effort we spend discerning those beliefs through our reading.
To use Prior’s terminology, virtue is “excellence” and reading well, or “virtuously,” forms a greater sense of virtue in the reader. Rather, than teaching us what to think, literature informs how we ought to think.
Finding Christian Virtue on Your Bookshelf
But the idea of virtue does not exist within a vacuum. She argues that part of the reason we struggle to articulate human excellence today is that we’ve lost sight of its purpose, namely, to bring glory to God. When divorced from this end, Prior describes individual virtues as “lifeless limbs severed from the body that once gave them purpose.”
Her introduction alone is worth the price of her book, but like any seasoned educator she demonstrates her thesis with patient and thorough clarity. The remaining chapters are broken into three sections—the Cardinal Virtues (prudence, temperance, justice, and courage), the Theological Virtues (faith, hope, and love), and the Heavenly Virtues (chastity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility). Each chapter examines one virtue and considers its presentation through the lens of a well-known literary work.
She utilizes classic staples like The Great Gatsby and A Tale of Two Cities as well as writings prized among Christian circles, such as Pilgrim’s Progress and the works of Flannery O’Connor. But she also includes stories believers may find less familiar, like Endo’s Silence, McCarthy’s The Road, and Saunders’s “Tenth of December.” Her practice of promiscuous reading—one she encourages in the opening pages—broadens the application of her argument and renders it timeless by demonstrating virtue in both classical and modern literature.
Often times, the temptation in books like On Reading Well is toward reducing the practice of “reading well” to a one-size-fits-all formula, which inevitably produces ill-informed readers. Prior’s approach achieves a balance between examining the surface level pieces of a book (plot, genre, characters, etc.) and that of the story it tells. Both are parts of the whole, like a recipe to a meal. Yet she does not require readers to emphasize one over the other. Instead, they can bake their cake and eat it too.
Virtuous Reading for a Virtuous Life
Stories are the canvas into which we color our values and convictions. They explain for us both the what and the why of everything we do. Because of that, virtuous reading is an analogy of virtuous living. It requires all of the ancillary qualities required for a healthy life, none of which is separated from the other. Yet, like any worthy endeavor, reading will only return what we are willing to put into it.
No one is guaranteed virtuous life. It takes practice, a lifetime of education, and the understanding that virtues are virtue-less apart from a virtuous end. For Prior, that end is a life committed to glorifying God, the one who has penned us into his own story. Rather than distribute an oversimplified approach to reading, On Reading Well invites readers deeper into their joy of literature to further kindle a lifelong—and virtuous—passion for the written word.