It was my great blessing to have had excellent English teachers from seventh grade through college. They each had a gift of teaching, but they each also had a passion for what they were teaching. They took me behind the story so that I could see it was a story, yes, but it was also a lesson about life, an inspiration, a pathway of imagination, a structure through which poured ideas, beliefs, assertions, and principles.
And this was fiction I’m talking about.
I saw courage and struggle in The Old Man and the Sea. I found basic ideas of good and evil in Great Expectations and David Copperfield. I learned about pride and ambition in Julius Caesar. I was taught about people and race in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I fought against impossible odds and experienced what it meant to be the odd man out in Don Quixote. And I read in The Canterbury Tales that human nature was the same in the 20th(and 21st) century as it was in the 14th.
My English teachers have an heir. Her name is Karen Swallow Prior. She teaches at Liberty University in Virginia. She’s published several works, including Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (2012) and Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More, Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (2014). And she recently published On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books.
It’s a book about great books. It’s a book about virtues. It’s a book about reading great books, and why it is an important human activity. And, indirectly, it’s a warning against consuming nothing but self-help books with titles like “The Seven Principles of This” or “Ten Rules for That,” and believing that fiction has nothing to offer the spirit and nothing to offer the soul.
Prior organizes her book around the idea of virtues, which have been studied and written about as long as people have studied and written. She describes the cardinal virtues – prudence, temperance, justice, and courage. She explores the theological virtues – faith, hope, and love and the heavenly virtues – charity, chastity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility. And she uses a great work of literature to frame her discussion of each virtue.
With a caveat. No work of literature is a “how-to” book, with specific steps and a personal action plan for being kinder, learning humility, finding courage, demonstrating humility, or understanding and practicing any of the other virtues. “Great books offer perspectives more than lessons,” Prior writes. And she’s right. That may not be sufficient for citizens of the internet age who want their lessons tweetable and liked on Facebook and Instagram.
The books and authors she uses to frame her discussions are as well-known as A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (the virtue of justice) and Persuasion by Jane Austen (patience) and as less-known as The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy and the short story “Tenth of December” by George Saunders. Each work in its own way is a classic, worthy of reading, study, and contemplation.
For me, each chapter evoked memories of when I first read or learned about the works. My eighth-grade English teacher was something of a maverick, getting in trouble for what she had our class of advanced readers study. We learned that the first novel is considered to be Pamela by Samuel Richardson, written in the early 1700s. Henry Fielding found the book and its moral teachings rather repugnant, so he wrote a parody, Shamela, before settling down to write an even better book (and one better fit for instruction), Tom Jones. Parents of eighth-graders balked at their sons (it was an all-boys class) reading Tom Jones. So, we did what any self-respecting eighth-grade class of boys would do – we read it on our own. Without parental objections, we also read The Great Gatsby, The Old Man and the Sea, A Tale of Two Cities, Alas, Babylon (about nuclear war), and several others. Two of those are on Prior’s list.
I read Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, another of the books discussed (virtue of chastity, and it’s broader than you might think), in my junior year of high school – American literature class. It was part of a term paper I did on American realists. And Prior includes two stories by Flannery O’Connor (virtue of humility) that I read in the mid-1970s when I was trying my own first (and abortive) attempt at writing short stories.
These related essays in On Reading Well are about great books and virtues, about character and the things that lead to a life well-lived. But like all books that describe a passion, and Prior is passionate about great books, it reminds us of something else. Great books are marker stones of time and places in our lives. They help us understand where we were, who we became, and how we got there.