“There is something in the very form of reading — the shape of the action itself — that tends toward virtue.”
So writes Karen Swallow Prior in her newest book published last month, “On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books,” speaking of the forming influence of literature in her life.
“My deep love of reading slowly meandered into a deep love of God…I learned how to be the person God created me to be,” she writes.
Prior, a professor of English at Liberty University, offers that same joy to the everyday reader through accessible prose and a series of written lectures. Chapters titled for each of the virtues — four cardinal, three Christian, and five heavenly — each correspond with a different novel, through which Prior both teaches virtue and awakens the reader to the power of literature.
Through her engaging and concise prose, Prior reveals the virtues hidden in the famous works she discusses. Like the great books she cites, Prior’s book also instructs by example, showing, not just telling, the way virtues reside in literature.
In the chapter on justice, Prior points out that Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” exemplifies injustice, both the cause and effects, which build ever so slowly, gathering, before crashing down and wreaking havoc on two cities. Prior cites the famed opening of the novel:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”
Whereas the villain in “A Tale of Two Cities” is excess, “Justice is the mean between selfishness and selflessness,” she writes.
The novel’s structure embodies the overwhelming impact just one act of injustice can have, Prior points out. One extreme act of vice, like that of rape, can provoke a retaliation that almost obliterates an entire family over generations and decades.
Form, not just plot and character, plays a critical role in a much later novel that Prior addresses, written by Japanese author Shusaku Endo. “Silence” is a heartbreaking novel about the persecution of Christians in 17th-century Japan. Written for a modern audience, the story has a polarizing effect on many Christian readers, who find the conclusion, that of a priest apostacising to save his parishioners from torture, problematic. Some believe Endo is condoning apostasy.
In her chapter about faith, Prior writes about the book, “The purpose in reading this novel — or any novel — is not to find definitive answers about the characters. It is rather to ask definitive questions about ourselves. To read about an experience of faith as it falters is an opportunity to seek resolution not in the work of fiction but in the work of our own faith.”
The form, that of a parable, the novel takes on, helps the reader to understand the story before condemning or praising it for what seems like an “anything goes” kind of Christianity. The spiritual truth gleaned from a parable, and from “Silence,” writes Prior, is not as definitive:
“Like a parable, ‘Silence’ raises questions even as it offers possible answers,” she wrote.
Christian tragedy, including “Silence,” Prior reminds the reader, does not end on the last page, but looks onward. In her concluding paragraph, Prior states, “We can grow in faith only when we recognize that our faith is imperfect.” The apostate priest, while carrying the weight of guilt, still believes, and teaches the reader about the imperfection of a Christian’s faith.
In the way that “Silence” reveals the complexities of maintaining faith in seemingly impossible circumstances, and “A Tale of Two Cities” expresses the scope and destruction that injustice can have and inflict, so also Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” teaches us about courage, and “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” by Leo Tolstoy deepens an understanding of love — If only we have the eyes to see and hearts to change and grow in virtue.
“On Reading Well” not only tells, but like a good piece of literature, shows. Books have the power to change a person, and Prior’s is no exception.