Par Excellence

I recently started a new series of messages based on Karen Swallow Prior’s book On Reading Well, published in 2018 by Brazos Press, a division of the Baker Publishing Group. My hope was to jump start my blogging career by giving me something easy to write about; the ease coming by way of commenting on the content of Prior’s book. It hasn’t worked out that way so far. The thoughts stimulated by her insights are there, though falling short of easily being translated into written words anyone can read. My Covid-inspired lethargy is still holding sway.

The impetus to launch this project can be blamed on the book’s title. It offered the promise of learning from a pro about the proper methodology for reading a book in a better way than mentally acknowledging each word on each page. And as long as the anticipated process proved to be within my cognitive reach, I was gratefully prepared to be all in for learning something new even at my advanced age – defying the old dog, new tricks syndrome.

The book’s title, though, proved to be something of a trap. To learn the professor’s method for reading, one must also subject one’s self to a primer on intellectual history of a western mindset. Think Greek philosophy amplified by Christian theology (with its implied Judaic roots) and you have the foundation necessary to implement the good professor’s methodology. For example:

To read well one must understand one’s telos. I didn’t consciously know that I had one, but I do. Everyone does. If yours is as poorly defined as mine was (past tense since I’ve now learned my lesson) then here is the answer to your dilemma. Your telos is how you view your purpose in life.

We must hold Aristotle responsible for this concept. For him the telos (purpose) for all people everywhere was happiness. He then asserted that to achieve happiness one must live a life of virtue, of which there were four that made the individual a model citizen for the establishment for a stable society: prudence, temperance, courage and justice. These are regarded as the four cardinal virtues since all other virtues, of which there are many, hinge on the primacy of these four.

Reading virtuously, therefore, is one of Professor Prior’s mandates for reading well. The others include reading promiscuously, involving a wide variety of genres and authors; reading aesthetically, finding pleasure in the beauty of a works content and form (poetry v. prose or history v. literature); and reading analytically, marking up a book’s pages to assist one’s observations as the first step in determining the why of both plot and character development. But it is the role of reading virtuously that clearly drives the rest of the professor’s narrative.

Virtue, aligning with Aristotelian thought, is defined for us as excellence. Seems simple, but you must accept it as just an enticement to keep reading, since defining virtue as excellence requires further expansion, which requires reading  the book’s subsequent chapters. My earlier use of the word “ease” to describe my attempts at reviving my blogging efforts was naïve, a word apparently derived from a Latin word used to malign non-philosophers, like me.

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