Good reading and the good life

Reading books is a virtuous act.

Reading books about reading books can present a few conundrums. What if you haven’t read the books the authors discuss? Or find you’d rather just read the books themselves? And then there’s that metacognitive traffic circle—doing a thing about the thing that you’re doing—that’s hard to enter or exit.

Yet such books abound, including these by English professor Karen Swal­low Prior and novelist and critic Francine Prose. Hand me a book of Chris­tian literary criticism by a professor at Liberty University and one by a visiting writer at Bard who writes for the New Yorker, and I assume I’d prefer the second. I’d be wrong. Prior’s book kindled my curiosities and commitments as a reader, while Prose’s dimmed them.

Prior applies the lens of moral philosophy to literary criticism in On Reading Well. Using 12 virtues as camera settings, of sorts, Prior opens both critical and spiritual apertures on literature. She focuses on prudence in Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, justice in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, kindness in George Saunders’s short story “Tenth of December,” and so on. Throughout the book she projects the light of scripture, the reckoning of moral philosophers such as Aquinas and Aristotle, and the astute observations of a literary critic.