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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