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“On Reading Well,” like a good piece of lit­er­ature, tells as well as shows. | Pexels

“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.