In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit)
My introduction to literature was when my father gave me a copy of Bulfinch’s mythology after I learned to read. What began with tales of Zeus and Hercules and Achilles soon transformed into reading about Harry Potter’s years at Hogwarts, Bilbo’s adventures in Middle Earth, Hamlet’s moral dilemma, and Dickens’s stories of the Victorian era.
I have long suspected that much of the way I approach the world was formed by the literature that I read. I was pleased, therefore, to find that I was not alone in suspecting this. Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well argues that we are what we meditate upon. Specifically, she says that literature has a unique ability to shape us and form us into more virtuous people through two methods: “offering images of virtue in action” and “offering the reader vicarious practice in exercising virtue” (15). By meditating on the literature that we read, we are invited to consider our lives (whether in agreement or contrast to the characters) and are thereby given the chance to enact in ourselves the reality that we find in the pages of these books.
Karen Swallow Prior’s book is foremost an exercise in cultivating the practice of reading. Recognizing that we live in a world of sound-bites and short internet videos, Prior reminds us that the art of contemplation and meditation is essential to “reading well.” As a literature professor, she believes that the words on the page in front of us are essential to formation. This requires that we take the time to slow down and focus in a determined manner.
Prior does not imply that this is easy, though. In our age of constant breaking news, social media designed to keep our attention, and fragmented contact, this practice is hard to cultivate. Though difficult, like any discipline, it improves with practice. So Prior urges her own readers to read widely, constantly, and pleasurably. Pleasure, in particular, in an activity that makes the practice easier, and there are too many books to continue reading one that is “agonizing” to wade through (16). So read for pleasure, read widely, and read like your character depends on it, for it does.
The importance of character formation is at the heart of Prior’s work. She begins by describing the historical and philosophical tradition of virtue ethics, chiefly as found in the work of Aristotle and Alistair McIntyre. In this tradition, the virtuous life is the mean between extremes. The virtue of bravery lies between the extreme of cowardice and brash behavior. Humility lies between pride and self-erasure. Humility is the proper perspective of self, nether too high or too low. Therefore, each of these selected works becomes an image of someone who either held the virtue or was lacking in the virtue, inviting readers to consider their own lives and actions.
Prior moves from the Cardinal Virtues (Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Courage) to the Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope, and Love), before ending with a focus on the Heavenly Virtues (Chastity, Diligence, Patience, Kindness, and Humility). In each, Prior’s love for literature and its shaping power is evident. Using the characters in specific novels and short stories, Prior asks questions not confined to literature theory: What is the nature of faith and doubt? How do you practice temperance in an age more extravagant than Gatsby’s? What does justice look like for the descendants of injustice?
While these are not confined to questions of religion and faith, Prior’s explicitly Christian perspective informs how she approaches these questions. Looking to Scripture and church tradition, she invites the reader into a conversation surrounding these questions. She does not offer a universal answer. Rather, she offers us the chance to think for ourselves and answer as best we can. This is the role of literature: not to tell us what to think or the correct answer to a question, but to teach us “to ask definitive questions about ourselves” (108). Literature doesn’t provide all the answers, but it does reveal the questions that we have all been asking, even if we did not know it.
On Reading Well is an excellent resource for anyone who would like to begin thinking more about these crucial questions. Though you may not come away with a love for the same books as Prior, you cannot come away without a sense of the wonder and magic found in literature. The space to consider these questions is perhaps the greatest strength of this book. It creates a space for deeper reflection that is often not found in our current moment. As mentioned, it does not give the answers in the way that Aesop’s Fables might, but it does invite us to find ourselves in the story and ask, “What would I do?”
Life after literature
The bravest thing that Bilbo Baggins ever did was not fighting giant spiders or stealing from a dragon. It was walking alone through a tunnel: “Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.” (The Hobbit, 197). As a child, I didn’t realize this. The dragon was obviously the most dangerous thing. However, it was not the dragon that Bilbo had to conquer. He had to conquer himself.
Though Prior does not write about this book in her chapter on courage (choosing instead another classic, The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn), I believe that Bilbo represents what Prior finds in these other great works. As I read this novel as a child more times than I can count (even taking a course on Tolkien in college), I had to ask myself, “What is my dragon?” Bilbo offered no answer to my question. But he did offer a model for how to face that dragon. And my faith assured me that though I am just hobbit in a strange land away from the comforts of home, the dragon will be defeated (Rev. 20:1-3).
What Tolkien taught me through his imaginative world is just one example of why reading is so important. So, read widely. Read well. And read as if your soul depends on it, for it does!