5 Questions With Karen Swallow Prior About Her New Book, On Reading Well

On Reading Well “couldn’t have been more timely than in an age when I think most of us are growing weary of the hot takes, quick takes, and cheap shots that dominate the news and our social media,” Prior says.

By Liberty McArtor Published on September 3, 2018

A tweet. A news report. A Facebook post. For many, this is what our reading consists of. Do we have time to read literature? If we have the time, do we have the patience?

We should. And a new book from Liberty University English professor Karen Swallow Prior explains why. Set to release on September 4, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books, examines how great books help cultivate virtue.

Prior spoke with The Stream to answer five questions about her new book.

A Culture That Doesn’t Read

The Stream: Why this book at this time? 

Prior: As an English professor, I think any time is a good time for a book about books! But the direction that On Reading Well takes — a book not only about reading, but about reading well in order to live well — couldn’t have been more timely than in an age when I think most of us are growing weary of the hot takes, quick takes, and cheap shots that dominate the news and our social media.

Nearly a decade ago when I set out to publish my first book (Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me), I was told repeatedly by publishers that books about books just do not sell. I think that has begun to change. Many people are re-discovering the value of sustained, attentive reading as an antidote to some of the worst vices of our time.

The Stream: In 2016, The Washington Post reported that the number of American adults who read literature had fallen to the lowest point in three decades. How is this hurting our culture and society? 

Prior: First, reading literary fiction has been shown through a number of studies to increase empathy in readers. This is because literary fiction tends to “show” more than “tell,” requiring the reader to make the kinds of inferences, judgments, assessments, and predictions that replicate those same activities we partake of every day in real life.

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Another way in which reading good literature develops virtue is in demanding diligence, patience, and prudence from the reader, three of the virtues I discuss in On Reading Well. Good literature makes demands of time and attention that are not made by blog posts, tweets, or even newspaper articles. Literature re-creates and interprets human experience and requires us to exercise our creative and interpretive faculties as we read. The more we are able to create and interpret well, the better equipped we are to practice virtue. It is virtue that makes for the good life and for the good society.

But good literature is more than merely useful. It is beautiful. The ability to appreciate beauty is a characteristic we have as human beings because we are made in the image of God, the creator of all beauty. A person or a society that has grown insensitive to beauty will be affected by that lack. We know, for example, from the failed modern housing projects of the twentieth century that living amidst ugliness is a de-humanizing experience that affects all of society.

Why Everyone Needs Good Books

The Stream: Why is it important for Christians to read good literature? 

Prior: In addition to cultivating the virtues that make for a good life and a good society, the Christian has even more particular reasons for reading good literature. Christianity is a religion of the word (and the Word). Being able to handle words skillfully (as well as the Word) is a way to practice and improve our faith. This has always been true. In this time in which we find ourselves, it is even more imperative for Christians to steward well the gifts of words and literacy.

In this time in which we find ourselves, it is even more imperative for Christians to steward well the gifts of words and literacy.

Just as during the middle ages it was Christians, hidden in monasteries away from the surrounding chaos, who preserved the written word for generations to come, so now we who are living in an increasingly post-literate culture, one driven more and more by images and sound bites rather than the sustained logic of linear thought, have the duty to preserve and advance a worldview steeped in the written word.

The Stream: Is there a specific audience this book is geared toward? 

Prior: In writing On Reading Well, I tried to write for both those who already are experienced readers of great literature and those who want to read and love literature more. It is admittedly difficult to write for both audiences, but I was able to draw on nearly 30 years of teaching literature to college students. People often tell me that they wish they could take one of my classes. In many ways, reading this book is like taking a class with me — except I won’t be giving any quizzes and no papers are required!

How to Read More

The Stream: For a Christian who isn’t well read but wants to be, what advice do you have?

Prior: The introductory chapter in the book is devoted to this topic. A couple of points I make in it are that we need to practice reading just like any other skill: it requires patience, attention, and time. Reading quality literature requires the sacrifice of these things. It always has, but with so much more competing for our attention and with our attentions spans ever decreasing because of the impact of technology, sustained reading takes more effort for most of us than it used to — myself included.

There are so many good books out there to choose from that I do encourage people to read something that they will enjoy. Many lists of the “best” works of literature can be found easily on the internet. Start with those and choose the works that most interest you. Join a book club. Or read a book along with a friend with whom you can discuss the work.

The neat thing is that the more one reads, the better one becomes at it. And then it becomes even more enjoyable.

Answers have been lightly edited for length.

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  • Jacob Miller

    As a school librarian, I give a big “AMEN” to this book. Getting kids to love reading and do it fluently is a major part of my job.

    I would add that reading broadly is part of being well-read.

    In past decades, when only white men went to college, they only read classics written by white men. (with rare exceptions.)

    Yet, those old Ivy League guys are often held up as the standard for being well-read.

    • Ah, this explains quite a lot. There is a particularly nasty communist incursion into the librarian positions of the us.

      Those “white men” invented those universities, and in them they studied things substance and Absolute Truth. Things that you reject for not being “revolutionary.”

      Today, your primary concern is destroying the classics to make room for banalities that you feel will degenerate society and push “revolution.” Do you have any idea what happens to those like you after “revolution?”

  • Paul

    “First, reading literary fiction has been shown through a number of studies to increase empathy in readers. ”

    You’ll find me in the non-fiction section.

    • Ken Abbott

      Presumably being non-empathetic, then. 😉

      Seriously, Ms. Prior has an excellent point. Reading the classics of fiction imparts any number of benefits, not the least being the enjoyment of some really good stories, and who doesn’t like a good story? I’m having fun at present reading Dumas’s “The Three Musketeers.” For a novel written in the middle of the 19th century, it’s remarkably modern.

      • Paul

        I pass no judgement on others reading fiction, if it floats your boat then go for it. I simply prefer non-fiction. I can spend the rest of my life reading biographies, politics, history, religion, science, nature, art, economics, business and finance books and barely make a dent on what is available. I expect to tackle quite a few again this winter.

        If the objective is for people to read then it will be far better accomplished if people read books that interest them.

        • Ken Abbott

          To your last point, you’ll get absolutely no argument from me. I usually have at least one fiction and one non-fiction book going at any one time.

          • Paul

            In hindsight I do have one fiction in the hopper for this winter, Atlas Shrugged.

          • Ken Abbott

            I’ve never attempted to read Rand. A matter of taste, as you say.

  • Stephen D

    Christians in earlier centuries have not always read or approved of what is now considered to be “great literature”. The concept of great literature is predicated in the assumption that literature which is excellent when judged by purely literary standards is worth reading. This is not the Christian view.
    The Christian view is that only literature that is wholesome, and that promotes godly living, is worth reading. On this view Lady Chatterley’s Lover (for example) is not worth reading, even though it is “great literature”.
    Many people will find this too restrictive. But Christians need to ask themselves whether “great” novels that contain explicit descriptions of illicit sex acts (for example) are good for them to read. Does God want us to fill our minds with this degrading material?
    Similar considerations apply to art and music. There are famous paintings, even of biblical subjects, that revel in the depiction of voluptuous females nudes in suggestive poses. Are these suitable subjects of contemplation for Christians? There is a lot of music, particularly in opera, that is unquestionably “great” but morally dubious.
    Much of the great literature of the pre-Christian pagan world – the classics of ancient Greece and Rome – promotes ideologies that are antithetical to Christianity. The great poems of Sappho, for example, promote lesbianism. The works of Homer portray a world of pagan gods in which the true God was unknown and values were admired that are incompatible with Christianity.

    • Paul

      Fact is you’re in large part also describing the Bible.

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