Lessons in Virtue

I am in the process of reading a book entitled On Reading Well and discovering that I am not doing a very good job of it. Wellness in this case is about mining the emotional depth of any literary work; a concept I can fully embrace in thought but struggle to execute.

The ore to be mined in this particular expedition is virtue, an abstraction which I find appealing but one which can quickly elude most of us, who confess to the sin of concrete thinking. To discuss a topic such as virtue one must dabble in the arts of philosophy, theology and pure speculation. The result on my part is the tendency to rationally go astray without really trying.

The author of my conundrum is Karen Swallow Prior, a professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. Her credentials are well documented on the inside back panel of the book’s jacket. She is to be respected for her academic prowess and scholarly affiliations.

I also know her to have been a very avid reader from a young age. This comes from reading her well annotated memoir Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me. My guess is that this childhood avocation is what really sets us apart and makes her writing something of a challenge for me to understand. I barely learned to have Fun with Dick and Jane, the literary nemesis of my first grade experience, while Professor Prior was conversant with far headier stuff at the same age.

Had it not been for the film adaption of a Hardy Boys mystery shown as a serial on the original Mickey Mouse Club, my interest in books would have remained non-existent. I enjoyed the TV version of the story and when a friend said he had the book on which it was based, I hesitantly became a reader in order to relive the joy of the episodic tale.

Besides solving once again the mystery of the missing loot, I also discovered the reality of books and movies being related in name only, sharing little more than a title, character names, and basic storyline. Books have more of everything the movies and TV shows cannot even dare to contain by both providing the details of the hero’s journey as well as the time it takes to tell it all.

Then again my older brother, who I idolized, was a reader. By the time he went away to college, I was curious enough about books to pirate his paperback book collection during his absence. Six years my senior, taking on this clandestine reading assignment meant making the leap from While the Clock Ticked (Hardy Boys Book 11) to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. The world never looked the same to me after George shot Lenny as an act of mercy. It made me an adult… or so I thought. At least my reading habit took on new life.

My attraction to Professor Prior’s work came by way of an on-line article in which she demonstrated how you can gain insight into a fictional character’s character by what is revealed in the story about their reading habits. A clever concept and one I have personally witnessed.

Charles Dickens, one of my favorite authors, was good at using this technique. Just read A Christmas Carol to learn about the young Ebenezer Scrooge’s reading habits or spend some time with his literary cousin, David Copperfield, in the book of the same name. You will find that their affinity for literary adventures is insightful as to understanding their youthful frame of mine and their subsequent future development.

Getting back to my struggles with understanding Professor Prior’s approach to the study of virtue and its presence in various literary works, I have decided to make use of her scholarly achievement to advance my own selfish writing aspirations by launching into a new series. What I propose is a virtual classroom exchange about virtue, if doing so is not unethical.

Such an approach could serve as an antidote to my Covid induced lethargy in posting weekly weblog messages by giving me something to write about over the next several weeks. It means I must actually study the content On Reading Well instead of addressing it as a casual reader. This will require a lot more thought equity on my part in order to write meaningful essays as if I had actually paid to be one of Professor Prior’s in-class students at Liberty. What a way to start a series on the value of virtue.

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