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August 10, 2018Interviews

One-on-One with Karen Swallow Prior on ‘On Reading Well’

Reading good literature well is in itself a practice of virtue.
One-on-One with Karen Swallow Prior on ‘On Reading Well’
Image: via Creative Commons/Karen Swallow Prior

Ed: The subtitle of your book is “Finding the Good Life through Great Books.” What do you mean by “the good life”?

Karen: Some people think living “the good life” means having career or financial success, traveling the world, and owning lots of things. But in classical philosophy, going all the way back to Aristotle and through the founding of America, the pursuit of the good life, or as it is alternately translated, “happiness,” refers to having the freedom to fulfill our human purpose by excelling at the very things that make us human.

In other words, what makes for a good life is good character. And good character is manifested through the virtues.

Ed: How are these virtues defined?

Karen: Philosophers and the early church fathers put a lot of thought into identifying and examining these “excellencies,” or virtues, that cultivate good character. They include courage, prudence, humility, kindness, patience, diligence—all of which I cover in the book—and many, many more.

Aristotle defined a virtue as a mean between an excess and a deficiency. For example, to be excessively bold is to be rash; to be too lacking in boldness is to be cowardly; the mean between these two extremes constitutes the virtue of courage. Each virtue is a moderation between two extremes, and each virtue depends on all the others. For example, it takes prudence to determine how to avoid both cowardice and rashness in a given situation in order to exercise true courage. And while the origins of these ideas are in Greek philosophy, we find confirmation of them in biblical truth: Philippians 4:5 exhorts believers to let their “moderation be known to all,” as it is rendered in the King James Version.

Ed: Why do we talk so little about virtues today? Has the idea of the virtuous life been lost?

Karen: Aristotle believed that the virtues are the qualities that help us fulfill our purpose as human beings. Similarly, Christians believe that human beings were created with a purpose, and that our lives have meaning. Just as we cannot judge how good a machine is unless we know what its purpose is, we cannot determine what constitutes a good life unless we know what our lives are for.

But part of what characterizes the modern condition is the lack of belief in any ultimate purpose for human existence. Without an understanding of purpose, we cannot understand—let alone pursue—virtue, an idea examined by Alasdair McIntyre in After Virtue and one I explore in the book.This, ultimately, is why even our secular discourse and political life is so lacking in even the most basic civic virtues. We can’t agree on means if there isn’t a common end or purpose in sight.

Ed: How can reading good literature cultivate virtue?

Karen: Of course, reading literature isn’t the only way to cultivate virtue. But reading good literature well is in itself a practice of virtue. Literary art—as opposed to words strung together to communicate facts and information—requires the exercise of the imagination, the practice of patience, the delay of gratification, and the sustaining of attention and intellectual rigor.

These are all activities that build character in ways in which mindlessly scrolling through a Twitter or Facebook timeline cannot. So simply the way we read literature in contrast to other kinds of reading cultivates virtue. Additionally, what we read contributes to virtue when we read timeless works that convey universal human experiences that transcend time, place, and social position.

In the book, I show how we can learn about diligence from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, patience from Jane Austen’s Persuasion, justice from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities—and much more.

Ed: In addition to writing about virtues in these classic works of literature, you also write about how to read well. Is there anything about reading that you as an English professor and teacher of literature struggle with yourself?

Karen: Oh, absolutely! I devote the entire introductory chapter to instruction on why and how to read well. Then I try to model that practice in the rest of the book. But here’s the truth: I have been an avid reader for all of my life (minus the first three years.) But in the last few years—with the proliferation of social media, blog posts, and hot takes—I have found it harder and harder to put my phone down and focus for extended periods of time on an actual book.

If I as a professional reader, so to speak, struggle this hard, then I know most others are, too. I wrote this book for myself as much as for anyone else.

Ed: The human virtues are timeless. So is great literature. Is your book timely or timeless?

Karen: Well, both, I hope! As much as the world has changed over the millennia, the qualities that make for good character and good literature have not really changed. Yet, we live in an age in which there is so much “noise” and so much ugliness, that truth, goodness, and beauty get drowned out. (You talk about some of these phenomena in your own forthcoming book, Christian in the Age of Outrage.) Yet, as creatures made in the image of God––who is the source of all truth, goodness, and beauty––we need these things whether we realize it or not.

Most of us have forgotten or never even learned the insights of the ancients on human character. I thought I knew a lot about the virtues until I began researching and writing the book. Most of us are having more and more trouble reading actual books. Now seems a perfect time to recover our knowledge and practice of virtue and an appreciation for the literary tradition that has long cultivated those virtues.

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One-on-One with Karen Swallow Prior on ‘On Reading Well’