On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books
Professor Karen Swallow Prior’s terrific new book, frames this conversation: On Reading Well.
David George Moore’s other interviews with Professor Prior can be found at http://www.twocities.org/?p=2360 and here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2015/02/07/saturday-book-interview-with-karen-swallow-prior/
Some of Dave’s videos can be accessed at www.mooreengaging.com
Moore: You have written another book about reading (see interview above). How is On Reading Well different?
Prior: The framework of my first book about books, Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, was my life. That book is a memoir, both literary and spiritual. In it I discuss the books that influenced my life the most as I was developing into a lover of books and eventually an English professor. Even more it tells the story of how my love of books deepened my love of God. On Reading Well examines more of my favorite literary works but this time through the lens of the classical virtues: twelve virtues and twelve different works (well, thirteen really, because I couldn’t pick just one of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories!). Again I weave together literary life and real life, but less through my own personal story and more through the human virtues that comprise the good life.
Moore: I imagine it was not difficult finding a book for each virtue you wanted to highlight, but the difficulty I am assuming was in having to whittle down your list of what great books to use. Was that the case?
Prior: I started out with a list that was twice as long. This was actually before I decided to use the virtues as a framework. My original plan for the book was to discuss more works in less depth and along a much looser organizational structure. But, as creative and writing processes tend to go, the idea developed and evolved into a very different one than what I first envisioned. That meant being more selective, not only because I was covering fewer works, but also because I needed to select works that aligned with the virtues. As a result, I think I have at least another book or two about books in me!
Moore: Both Professor Ralph Wood of Baylor and William F. Buckley told me that they were painfully slow readers. It sure has not limited the quality of either’s work! Why do so many of us have an aversion to reading slowly, and what are some of the benefits of learning to slow down and pay better attention?
Prior: Almost everything else in our lives is hurried: our eating, our driving, our texting, our scrolling through social media feeds, our entire days. Hurry is a central feature of modern life. Entire books have been written on this topic. For most of us, slowing down requires intentional effort. Reading for formation (rather than merely information) depends upon reading slowly. Analogously, I’ve been undergoing physical therapy recently, and my therapist constantly has to remind me to slow down my exercises. This is because relying on speed and gravity rather than muscle alone diminishes the effectiveness of the exercises. So it is with reading: reading quickly (particularly literary works) diminishes not only understanding but even the pleasures that the art of language can offer.
Moore: Over the past ten years, I’ve noticed a dramatic decrease of people reading on planes. Games, movies, and other computer diversions dominate how people occupy themselves. I always try to figure out what people are reading on my way to the bathroom! It is rare that I see anything remotely close to the kinds of suggestions you mention in your latest book. On the other side of the spectrum, do you see any hopeful trends where people are engaging serious literature?
Prior: As an English professor, I’m surrounded much of the time by people who read literature (even if it’s just because they will be tested on it!), so my perspective comes partly from the proverbial ivory tower. With that said, I came to terms years ago with the reality that relatively few people outside academia read much that is literary. Yet, I think that is changing, particularly in the more conservative Christian circles I’m in. I think people are wearying of the hurry we talked about above and of the shallowness of the internet and the effect it’s having on our brains. I believe we are experiencing a re-discovery of the joys and benefits of reading books and of reading literary works in particular. I’ve been extremely encouraged by the response to On Reading Well in this regard. Many of the people who are reading it are telling me that they have been inspired to read or re-read the works I discuss and more literary works in general. This is exactly what I hoped for in writing the book.
It would be blasphemous to say that any literature is on par with Scripture. However, it does not follow that this means great literature (and I am thinking of books by Christian and non-Christian authors) can’t fill out Scripture in some meaningful ways. For example, you include one of my favorites: The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Bunyan does many things brilliantly in this book, but one of those things I find immensely helpful is what The Pilgrim’s Progress teaches us about Christian growth. Among other things, Bunyan shows how different Christians have different temptations. For example, Vanity Fair does not tempt Mr. Fearing and he loves rolling around in the Valley of Humiliation. However, Mr. Fearing gets terrified when he is about to go through the waters where the demons wail their wicked sounds.
It seems that reading great books other than Scripture can both help us read Scripture better, but help us better understand Scripture’s teaching. What do you think?
Prior: Absolutely! To read scripture faithfully and well requires the same skills it takes to read literature well. Furthermore, in the same way that the created world offers general revelation about the Creator, so human works can be a form of general revelation. Some people get nervous about looking for God’s truth in the creative works made by mere humans because there is so much room for error. Yet we forget that just as all human art is an interpretation of the world God created, so too is our response to the world he created. The heavens do declare the glory of God—but not everyone interprets it that way. Apart from the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit in us, all interpretations are subject to error, whether they are interpretations we offer through what we make or those we offer through what we declare about what God made. Creating and finding meaning is one of the most significant expressions of what it means to be made in the image of God, the Author of all meaning. Of course, we must discern what is true interpretation and what is false, but our very effort to discover meaning is something we were created to do.
Moore: Throughout the ages, the Church has had many skilled writers. My impression, and please correct me if I am wrong, is that there are more skilled non-Christians writing great fiction today than Christians. Am I remotely accurate on this, and if so, would you hazard a guess why it is so?
Prior: I cannot disagree with you. It’s ironic that as literacy has increased through the centuries and as education has become more widely available, the mark of Christians in literary (and other) arts seems to be diminishing. We have always been “a people of the Book,” yet today the church seems to be reflecting more than influencing what’s becoming an increasingly post-literate culture. To be honest, this is one reason I wrote On Reading Well. I want to help the church steward the gift of language and interpretation that God assigned to human beings when he first created us. The first task God gave Adam was to name the animals, and the first recorded human words are the poetry Adam proclaimed upon first seeing Eve. We have the Scriptures because of the obedience of the human beings who wrote down the words inspired by God and those who later preserved and copied those words for future generations. The greatness of Christian writers throughout history is owing to the wisdom they gained from the Bible and their cultivation of the wonderful gift of language. In this fast-paced information age in which we think knowledge alone is power, it’s easy to forget that wisdom and eloquence have more power than mere information.
Moore: What are a few things you would like readers to take from your book?
Prior: I would like readers to gain skills in reading and to come away with both more confidence and more desire to read and to read well.