We’ve reached the finish of series of messages on virtue following the outline provided by Karen Swallow Prior in her book On Reading Well. The benefit for me of writing about the twelve virtues covered in her book was twofold. First it kept me writing and posting on a weekly basis after a long absence of literary lethargy. Second it let me indulge my personal interest in character development, which is enabled by the pursuit of virtue. This in turn ennobles my intention to revitalize my desired discipline of writing in a timely manner. Thank you, Professor Prior.
What I failed to do during this mini-campaign was to give the Professor the proper respect due her work. Her methodology and philosophy about the very virtue of reading well was lost under the weight of my own exposition on the twelve virtues identified in her book. In review I would like to backtrack and give a little more attention to the process she advocates for herself and for her students at Liberty University.
Professor Prior acknowledges at the outset the role of John Milton, the Puritan author of Paradise Lost, as an early mentor. She found inspiration for her own pursuit of reading well in his insightful phrase “books promiscuously read.” His belief was that all books expose us to a wide array of knowledge from which we can develop a virtuous persona by knowing what constitutes good and evil without having to be practitioners of the latter. This viewpoint likely reveals his Puritan faith that given the chance the vast majority of us will inherently choose good over evil; a bias I think the good professor possesses as well.
Prior builds on Milton’s perspective with the admonition for us to read virtuously. She describes this as the “vicarious practice in exercising virtue,” which is performed by evaluating the behavior of the characters in any story. Her premise includes the concept that “Literary characters have a lot to teach us about character.” Those of good repute exemplify virtue; those who are not can thereby prompt us to seek the virtuous alternative in something of a mental retaliation against what we find distasteful.
Here are a few important Priorisms:
“Reading well begins with understanding the words on the page.” Her teaching experience has taught her that some students – even at the college level – lack this skill. She watches a student’s eyes when she asks about the meaning of the words in the story. If they look up, as if searching for divine inspiration to rain down on them from above, she knows that they lack a definitive answer. But if they look down at the printed page, then she knows that are scanning the context of the words within the sentence, within the paragraph and the plot of the story to discern the correct answer.
“Read something enjoyable.” Reading well does not require reading something ordained by others as a must read. The point is to find those writers whose storylines engender a sense of delight. The challenge is to avoid stories that are too simple, qualifying as verbal pablum. Most of us have graduated well beyond the days of having fun with Dick and Jane. As such we are to seek out enjoyable books, which require, even inspire us to think. Her hope is that we will read books that “make a demand on you.”
“Read slowly.” The point here is to savor the words the way our tongues savor food. This approach reflects her belief that there is pleasure to be gained through the act of reading. And this takes us from the purely practical or intellectual benefits of reading to the emotional rewards as well. Beauty may be found in the well-crafted words of gifted writers, who bring fictional characters to life. Loving some, admiring others is perhaps the surest sign of how these fictions can shape our lives virtuously.
“Read with a pen, pencil, or highlighter in hand, marking in the book or taking notes on paper.” This requires a confession on my part. Throughout this series I did not make a single mark in her book that I could not completely erase. My reason for doing so was honorable, not rebellious, as I intend to give my copy of her book to someone who I know for a fact needs her informed counsel. Desperately. Otherwise I agree with her statement that “The true worth of books is in their words and ideas, not their pristine pages.”
There is a lot more to what she has to say, but I will leave that for you to discover by purchasing her book and taking the plunge into literary criticism. This one final point, though, I wish to make in homage to Prior’s work. She loves language. To demonstrate, she uses Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue to make a case for how moral language has been left empty by the intellectual shift inflicted on us by the Age of the Enlightenment. Prior turns to books as the lone holdouts for the sanctity of words. “Literary language, inherently resonant with layers of meaning, reminds us what fullness of language looks like.”
There appears to be something of a mystical enchantment cast upon us in the way books retain the memory of words as intended by the authors of the past. Meaning abides if we know where to look for it and trust in its ability to persuade us of the value of virtue. It is what a good friend would do, as Prior notes:
“Reading well adds to our life … the way a friendship adds to our life, altering us forever.”