Reading Our Humanity: Karen Swallow Prior Responds

Yesterday, I wrote about my concerns with the idea that “reading makes us more human.” Today, my friend and colleague Karen Swallow Prior, who wrote a post for the Atlantic (How Reading Makes Us More Human) about this topic, responds to my concerns:

AJ: I resonate with your point that reading distinguishes us as humans. But what does it mean to say that reading makes us “more human”?

KSP: Most of the pushback I’ve gotten on the article is from that phrase, “more human,” in the title, which I didn’t write, of course. Actually, nowhere in the article do I say that reading makes us “more” human. However, in the article I was picking up the thread of a recent debate sparked by an article in the New York Times followed by a rebuttal in Time. I contend, contra these two previous articles, that rather than making us more moral or better or smarter (as they suggest), the effect of reading literature is more fundamental. The word “make” has two different senses: “constitutes” and “having an effect.” I certainly do not mean that reading constitutes our humanity. But I believe that reading is an activity that makes us human in that other sense of having a humanizing effect on us—as opposed to making us more moral or better.

However, to say that reading has this humanizing effect is not to suggest that it is the only activity that can have that humanizing effect. Although the title suggests something I never actually say in the article, I do like the questions it provokes: “Does reading make us more human than other human activities?” To that, I would answer, no, not necessarily. But does reading make us more human than we were before reading? I’d say, emphatically, yes. Another question is, “What does ‘human’ even mean?”  Obviously, that question goes well beyond the scope of my essay.

AJ: For years, theologians and scientists have come up with ideas of what sets us apart as humans. I’m always hesitant to posit that anything other than the imago dei (the image of God) distinguishes us from other animals because there are always humans who can’t do whatever the humanizing quality is–demonstrate love, laugh, create, read literature–and those humans almost always have mental or physical disabilities. How do you respond to this?

KSP: The concept of imago dei as what sets human beings apart from the rest of creation never ceases to fascinate me. We certainly can leave it at that, but I think it’s good to flesh the concept out a bit. What does it mean? Certainly, that we are moral beings, that we have free will, that we have an eternal soul, and so on. I think the gift of human language is another reflection of God’s image in us. As human beings there are many ways that we can express the image of God in us—through worshiping, through praying, through loving, etc. Are any of us completely “human” in the fullness of human potential? Absolutely not. Yet there are infinite ways to work toward that fullness. Many of these we refer to as the “humanities.” Yet, not all human beings engage in or, engage equally, in these things.

A person who is deaf may not be able to hear music, but the world is full of other humanizing endeavors. You wrote recently about Penny’s prayers (Praying with Penny). I suspect that in her praying she is more fully human than I will ever be for all the books I’ve read. Despite being made in God’s image, we are all broken bearers of that image. As one reader of my article commented, the distinction is between human dignity and human flourishing. Reading is one means of human flourishing; imago dei is the source of human worth and dignity.

AJ: I actually have read a lot of places in which people (scholars, including Christians) argue that the ability to reason and/or intelligence is what makes (as in, I think they meant, constitutes) our humanity. Such a position leads to utilitarian ethics, the positive value of selective abortion, etc.

KSP: This is why I’m so glad you have given me the chance to expand on my essay here, Amy Julia. As you know, I am very pro-life*, very convinced that human life begins at conception. (In fact, one blogger railed against my article, calling it the epitome of speciesism!) Obviously, I don’t believe an unborn child must be able to read before being considered human or even fully human in one sense. So, of course, I would never say that our humanity or the fullness of our humanity depends on any level of intellectual ability or activity. Such is only one expression of our humanity. We all express our humanity in different ways and strive toward the fullness thereof in accordance with the way we were created and the opportunities God in his providence gives us—despite our own brokenness and that of the world.

What do you think? What other questions do you have for Karen?

*Karen has written for me before on her pro-life views. Read my questions for her about her pro-life position here. Also, read an excerpt from Karen’s wonderful spiritual and literary memoir, Booked, here.

About Amy Julia Becker

Amy Julia Becker writes and speaks about family, faith, disability, and culture. A graduate of Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary, she is the author of Penelope Ayers: A Memoir, A Good and Perfect Gift (Bethany House), and Why I Am Both Spiritual and Religious (Patheos Press).


  1. Thank you both so much for talking through this.
    AJ, you are so gracious in your interviewing and in bringing your own thoughts to bear in response to Karen’s original essay. And Karen, you have eloquently presented the framework for considering what it means not only to be human but to flourish as God’s creation.

  2. I really appreciated Karen’s article in The Atlantic and this interview, too. The distinction between flourishing and dignity is what I find most helpful: “Reading is one means of human flourishing; imago dei is the source of human worth and dignity.”

    Regarding reading as a means of human flourishing, I thought of my son, age 10, and his cousin, also 10, sitting together on the floor last weekend looking at Richard Scarry’s Biggest Word Book Ever. My son can read very few of the words; his cousin can read the whole thing easily. But their shared experience of pointing at objects and talking about them made the reading a rich time for them; in that moment, they were both flourishing. My son may never read even Charlotte’s Web on his own, but he understands something of the power of books and is more and more interested in them as a way to socialize and bond. At school he participates in reading buddies just like his other grade 5 classmates, reading in pairs with younger kids who can probably read much better than he can. This makes me happy.

    I also thought of that beautiful movie, “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” Music is such an integral part of Mr. Holland’s life that he is afraid to face the fact that his own son can’t hear — but then he realizes his son IS flourishing and has found his own way to joy even with the absence of hearing. So inspiring!

    Thanks for such an interesting discussion on a fundamental subject.

  3. hannah anderson says:

    I’ve found Anthony Hoekema’s understanding of imago dei helpful. He describes it as the prismatic relationship we have with God, with each other, and as stewards of the earth. Things like work and learning serve these relationships but they do not define them.

  4. Karen Swallow Prior says:

    Thanks for the chance to continue this discussion, Amy Julia. I hope those who commented yesterday and expressed concern about my position being elitist and so forth will read this post and respond. I truly hope this post clarifies some things. I’d love to hear from them.