On Reading Well

Finding the Good Life through Great Books

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Publishers Weekly starred review

Reading great literature well has the power to cultivate virtue. Great literature increases knowledge of and desire for the good life by showing readers what virtue looks like and where vice leads. It is not just what one reads but how one reads that cultivates virtue. Reading good literature well requires one to practice numerous virtues, such as patience, diligence, and prudence. And learning to judge wisely a character in a book, in turn, forms the reader's own character.

Acclaimed author Karen Swallow Prior takes readers on a guided tour through works of great literature both ancient and modern, exploring twelve virtues that philosophers and theologians throughout history have identified as most essential for good character and the good life. In reintroducing ancient virtues that are as relevant and essential today as ever, Prior draws on the best classical and Christian thinkers, including Aristotle, Aquinas, and Augustine. Covering authors from Henry Fielding to Cormac McCarthy, Jane Austen to George Saunders, and Flannery O'Connor to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Prior explores some of the most compelling universal themes found in the pages of classic books, helping readers learn to love life, literature, and God through their encounters with great writing. In examining works by these authors and more, Prior shows why virtues such as prudence, temperance, humility, and patience are still necessary for human flourishing and civil society. The book includes end-of-chapter reflection questions geared toward book club discussions, features original artwork throughout, and includes a foreword from Leland Ryken.


Foreword by Leland Ryken
Introduction: Read Well, Live Well
Part One: The Cardinal Virtues
1. Prudence: The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding
2. Temperance: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
3. Justice: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
4. Courage: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Part Two: The Theological Virtues
5. Faith: Silence by Shusaku Endo
6. Hope: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
7. Love: The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy
Part Three: The Heavenly Virtues
8. Chastity: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
9. Diligence: Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan
10. Patience: Persuasion by Jane Austen
11. Kindness: "Tenth of December" by George Saunders
12. Humility: "Revelation" and "Everything That Rises Must Converge" by Flannery O'Connor
Discussion Questions


"Karen Swallow Prior has written several critically acclaimed books, but in my book, her book on books is her best yet. On Reading Well is both a love letter to literature and a handbook on virtue, wisdom, and the good life. Each chapter delights, instructs, surprises, and captivates. Bound to be a classic, On Reading Well is an engrossing work that will appeal to book nerds and casual readers alike. Read it now, and you'll never take books for granted again."

Jonathan Merritt, contributor to the Atlantic and author of Learning to Speak God from Scratch

"On Reading Well is an exploration of the formative power of stories and an excavation of the life well lived, and we could scarcely have a better guide than Karen Swallow Prior. She is a person who loves (and has been shaped by) great books and who loves (and has been shaped by) the richness of Scripture, a scholar whose writing exudes both warmth and conviction. This story-saturated engagement with the virtues is pragmatic enough to touch the nitty-gritty of our lives and imaginative enough to inspire."

Tish Harrison Warren, priest in the Anglican Church of North America; author of Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life

"It sure seems like virtue is needed now more than ever. And what a treasure trove we have for encountering virtue in literature! Karen Swallow Prior is a lovely and wise guide. Take this resplendent tour--read this book! Your life will be better for it. The world will be enriched for your yes and receptivity to it. Thanks to Prior for using her beautiful talents to help us live as we were made to."

Kathryn Jean Lopez, senior fellow and director of the Center for Religion, Culture, and Civil Society, National Review Institute; editor-at-large, National Review

"You might not think yourself to be the kind of person to read a book about reading books. If you are trying to love people, to work well, to find meaning in your life, this book is for you. Karen Swallow Prior guides us through the big questions from great books with wisdom, insight, creativity, and compassion. Whether you are a wizened literary scholar who can lecture through the canon or someone who only pretended to read Shakespeare in college and couldn't tell the difference between Dostoevsky and David Foster Wallace, you should read this book. This is a significant and powerful work that will refocus discussion on the meaning of reading for spiritual formation."

Russell Moore, president, Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention

"In a world dominated by tweets and texts, hot takes and sound bites, the call to read and to read well couldn't be more timely, especially for the people of God. I can't think of a better person than Karen Swallow Prior to relay this important word. She is full of the same wisdom and virtue that she argues great literature can cultivate in us all."

Matt Chandler, president of Acts 29 and lead pastor of The Village Church in DFW

"It is not enough to read widely, Karen Swallow Prior says in her thought-provoking new collection. We must also read well--and thankfully Karen takes her reader by the hand and patiently reveals how a close (and enjoyable!) reading of literary works ranging from Jane Austen to George Saunders can pull us toward the good life. This illuminating literary overview prompts us to examine more deeply the books we know and love, and to reexamine our own hearts and minds through the lens of great books."

Anne Bogel, author of I'd Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life

"Karen Swallow Prior is the English professor most of us never had. Few teachers are this clear, compelling, and Christ centered! In these accessible pages the hard work of reading virtuously begins to feel both attractive and attainable. Read this book carefully--ideally over several months, with the literature close at hand, and perhaps with a friend--and you'll have the opportunity not only to mature as a careful reader but to grow in grace and virtue."

Justin Taylor, blogger, The Gospel Coalition; editor, ESV Study Bible

The Author

  1. Karen Swallow Prior
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    Karen Swallow Prior

    Karen Swallow Prior (PhD, SUNY Buffalo) is an award-winning professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah...

    Continue reading about Karen Swallow Prior


"[Prior] enthuses about the transformative power of reading in this lively treatise on building character through books. . . . Prior ruminates on characters and stories written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen, Shusaku Endo, and Flannery O'Connor, among others, and does a great job of naturally weaving in a valuable education along the way. Prior provides not only insights into the narratives themselves, but also lessons on things such as the etymology of words (there is a sharp difference, for instance, between the meanings of kind and nice). The most valuable passages are those where Prior shares her personal reflections on the literary works she loves, how they relate to Christian culture, and the ways literature can influence readers toward spiritual growth and maturity. With exquisite writing, she demonstrates how 'reading literature, more than informing us, forms us.'"

Publishers Weekly (starred review)