"Reading literature, more than informing us, forms us." Karen Swallow Prior

How Is Your Reading Impacting Your Life?

In my small, sleepy hometown, the day the Bookmobile parked across the road from Clowater’s Market was nothing short of breathtaking. I recall no scheduled rhythm or advance warning, but somehow word reached us, and I pedaled my bike down Route 1 with an empty book bag slung over the handle bars. Filling the bag was easy, but gathering courage to approach the stern-faced, bespectacled librarian took longer.

“How many books can we check out?”
“How many do you think you can read?”

Challenge accepted!

As a child, reading was my oasis, but it was not until I grew up, finished college, got married, and started reading aloud to a brood of boys that I began to realize  it was not enough simply to read widely. I wanted to read well. In On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books, Karen Swallow Prior offers the insight that to read well, “one must read virtuously.” (15) One does this by reading closely, resisting the urge to skim, and by reading slowly, investing both time and attention into the words on the page. Books worth reading make demands upon the reader which are well-compensated: enjoyment, enrichment, and enhanced ability to think (and, therefore, to enjoy more books!).

Reading Virtuously

I have filled journal pages with extensive quotes just to capture and hold the sheer beauty of  words. I have been formed by a love for fictional characters who somehow speak more wisdom than they realize and by authors whose view of the world made me want to peer through the same lens they were using.  Looking through Karen Swallow Prior’s lens, I see that reading well is a virtue in itself, but it is also a path to further virtue:

“Literature embodies virtue, first, by offering images of virtue in action and, second, by offering the reader vicarious practice in exercising virtue, which is not the same as actual practice, of course, but is nonetheless a practice by which habits of mind, ways of thinking and perceiving, accrue. (15)

Therefore, On Reading Well is a book about twelve works of literature, but it is also about the twelve central virtues these works enflesh, either by their presence or by their glaring absence. For the believer, this is not simply a matter of academic interest or literary curiosity, but it is our life. The process of sanctification (becoming more virtuous) is a means of glorifying God, and a right understanding of this growth process is our best push-back against a second-rate righteousness in the form of a checklist that Christopher Smith has termed “moralistic therapeutic deism.” (36)

For me, one of the most fascinating themes running through Karen Swallow Prior’s twelve chapters is the continual pursuit of Aristotle’s “virtuous mean” expressed this way:

“Both the deficiency and the excess of a virtue constitute a vice.” (29)

Virtue, then, falls “between the extremes of excess and deficiency.” (29) We’ve all been plagued by and mired in relationship with people on both ends of the bandwidth. Diligence is a virtue, but . . .

  • There’s the excess of a perfectionistic, workaholic boss who has missed every ballgame and birthday party in the history of his family and can’t begin to imagine why you would need a Saturday off.
  • Then, there’s the deficiency of diligence in a malingering co-worker’s two-hour lunch breaks and slipshod attention to detail that leaves you always picking up the slack.

Skilled as I am at falling off Luther’s horse, the virtuous mean stopped me in my tracks to ponder which virtues I might be slaughtering–and in which direction.

Virtue and Vice in Literature

The Great Gatsby demonstrates out-of-control lack of temperance in the life of James Gatz (aka Jay Gatsby) set against the 1920’s American Prohibition movement that outlawed the sale of liquor, “a law so intemperate it could only result in vice.”

A Tale of Two Cities captures historical injustice caused by excess and personifies anger, “the vice that opposes the virtue of justice,” in the vengeful knitting of Madame Defarge who “furiously weaves into her knitting the names of all those destined for execution at the hands of the mob.” (77)

In this manner, On Reading Well analyzes twelve of the books you may have read courtesy of your own childhood library or bookmobile and invites you into the ones you missed. In a non-fiction format, Prior employs the most compelling aspects of fiction to take readers to a new level of understanding in their own reading life, and this is a great gift because “reading literature, more than informing us, forms us.” By reading well, we become better equipped to read more skillfully our own narrative arc, to ask ourselves the probing questions that reveal our motives and sift our hypocrisy as we trust for grace to live well.

Many thanks to Brazos Press for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.

I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books, simply click on the title (or the image) within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Cheering you on in the joy of reading well,

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65 thoughts on “How Is Your Reading Impacting Your Life?”

  1. Michele, just this weekend I found myself skimming instead of reading. In wanting to “resist the urge to skim”, I actually went back and started over and was most grateful I did so. When we skim, we get the overall gist of the book but miss the beautiful nuances meant to stir and make us think more deeply. This sounds like a wonderful book.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for sharing this review, Michele. Finding that virtuous mean is not something that comes easily! But we must make the effort. God help us! Blessings to you.


  3. Michele, you always seem to make such wonderful book selections. I have to admit, my “book radar” has been off lately. I have not yet started on Chesterton. I have 3 other books going right now, and none of them are riveting so far. 2 are non-fiction and 1 fiction. I think I am going to pull the plug and admit defeat on one of them. I will donate to my friend’s little free library. I am going to have to begin making better choices!


    1. There’s so much vying for our attention that it’s hard to make choices. And I’m finding that with so many new books releasing this fall (at least among the people I know and try to encourage!), that I’m perpetually being pulled toward new books in quick succession. I’m looking forward to slowing down soon.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I love books. As a child, I would take home from the school library the max every Friday and have finished them by Saturday night. Oh, Sunday was a sad time w/o books! Then I started “borrowing” my older sister’s books – that’s how I read Exodus by Leon Uris when I was 10.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I have a lot of distractions in my day to day and when I do finally get to sit down and read to avoid just skimming I have to re-read certain sentences to understand and make sure I got the gist of what was said. I would find it to be a waste of time to miss an important lesson because I decided to skim. I would rather read a page a day and reflect on what it is I just came across. I hope you had a great weekend and happy Tuesday!

    Maureen | http://www.littlemisscasual.com

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good thinking! And when I read the Bible, I try to keep that principle in mind as well. I’m reading through in a year with my husband (out loud), but in my personal reading, I often will tackle just part of a chapter at a time.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Maureen!


  6. Hi Michele,

    I had forgotten about book mobiles!!! I LOVED THEM! And I also always LOVE libraries and browsing through. Although it seems libraries are a thing of the past with the digital age of e-readers.

    When homeschooling my children, we read whole books and used those to teach about history and geography. A good fiction book would tell the story and teach at the same time about some important event in history. My kids and I loved that approach!

    I’ve always been careful to read well. My time is limited for reading these days so I find that I choose books that edify and mentor. Not that reading fiction is wrong, but at this season in my life, this is what works for me.

    Thanks so much for sharing how to read well.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I actually discovered some books through homeschooling that I wish I had found when I was a kid. And I hear you with the limited time and stewarding that reading time. I made a decision a few years ago to make better use of my reading, and have not regretted it.


  7. I’m just now enjoying Karen’s BOOKED, thx to your reference to her recently. It’s been quite thought provoking. So likely I’ll be on to this one also at some point 😊 I appreciate the way she digs in and finds real life application in a good story! Thank you for taking time to read, digest, and pass on good books, Michele!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t read BOOKED, but I really enjoyed her biography of Hannah More, so that was my intro to her writing. I’m also intrigued that Karen’s roots are here in Maine, but I’m not sure where or how long she actually lived here.


      1. Oh you must visit BOOKED. Thought provoking and very enjoyable. Quite personal too. I don’t know how people can put themselves on the page that way… Except they’ve gotten beyond obsessing what people will think, having a firm grip on their own forgiveness from the One whose thoughts matter.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I loved bookmobiles, too. And I especially appreciated one that came to the assisted living facility my m-i-l was in, since reading was her favorite activity.

    Thanks so much for reviewing this book. I very much enjoyed Karen’s Fierce Convictions about Hannah Moore and her tweets since her experience of being hit by a bus a few months ago. I had the mistaken thought that this book was just kind of an encouragement to read, which I already did. But now I see it is so much more, so it is going on my TBR list.

    A former pastor didn’t use the term “virtuous mean,” but he introduced the concept by saying that every strength has an offsetting weakness. Someone with a take-charge leadership personality can be great at getting things done and motivating others, but awful when they don’t know how to turn that off. When they are not in charge, or when it’s a relaxed gathering, they can come across as supremely bossy (we have an extended family member like this. 🙂 ) Or Peter’s penchant for speaking up was good in some settings but left his foot in his mouth in others. We can be so proud of our “virtues” – which we shouldn’t be anyway, because anything good in us comes from the Lord. But we also have to be careful not to go too far one way or the other, as you said. I don’t think I ever thought of this, however, in relation to stories I read. So I am eager to explore that aspect.


  9. This sounds like a really interesting book. I read loads as a child as well, but saw it as a way to switch off and escape. I hadn’t really thought about how we are shaped by the books we read. The insights about the “virtuous mean” are thought-provoking too.


  10. This sounds like a book I must check into. Of course, I love books and reading. I like the idea of “reading well.” I so dislike it when I begin a book and it just does not grab me. That may be hours, even a day or two that becomes wasted time. I do not like that!! I was just looking at a list of classic literature and thinking about the ones I want to read some day. And those are fiction. How many other great nonfiction Christian books do I want to read too?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Sounds intriguing. As a child, I did not like reading at all. But when I hit my early 20s, I started in with a vengeance and have not stopped for the most part. There are some books I read over and over and find myself using many things as examples in the Christian life or in particular situations. I don’t read a lot of fiction, but once in a while I will read something really light and those I don’t spend a lot of time on though I think I do a little more than skim. I do love a good historical fiction and I love Dickens, Tolkein, C.S. Lewis and others of that type, and I do read a lot of Christian inspirational books and Bible based teaching books. I often underline those sections that really stand out to me, and I go back to them from time to time when they apply to certain situations in my life or in others. Thanks for sharing this review. I had not heard of this author before.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love introducing friends to writers who inspire me. It’s great that you developed a love for reading as a young adult. I am also a big under liner, and I also dog ear pages, but I’m not as faithful about going back to re-read as would like to be.


  12. Michele, I think that balance in virtue is true in many areas. In decorating, too much is not as pretty and neither is too little. In health, too much of something even healthy can also throw your body out of balance. Fascinating. I think the internet has made me more of a skimmer, but I prefer to ponder. I enjoyed this very much.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I can certainly remember books throughout my life that have impacted me deeply. I would agree that books are formative and while they don’t replace the performing of virtues, they certainly set the stage. Thanks for sharing. Have a great rest of the week.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely true. We witness virtue through our good reading and have the opportunity to “try on” different responses to life through the actions of characters. And then . . . it’s up to us to act on what we’ve learned.


  14. This looks like an excellent book. I love to read and much prefer the feel of a real book in my hand to an electronic version. I most prefer a book that opens my eyes to see the world from a different perspective, opens me to things that are thought-provoking, imaginative writing, and books that do not leave me in the weeds so long I am unsure of where the author wants me to go. At this season I become bored with the repetitive titles of “how to.” I never read more than one book at a time and now I will usually have several going at once depending on when and where I am going to read. I love inspiration in the morning and usually a bit later I dig into something more meaty or a book I am to review, but as I am nearing the end of my day I still love a well-written novel and carries me along and away.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I have always been a voracious reader as well. Even as a young girl I often had my nose in a book as I walked home from the bus stop. Today I almost never turn the TV on as I prefer to read.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. We are kindred spirits…I, too, have journals filled with quotes. One is titled “ Lessons Learned From Books”. I reads for pleasure, yes. But also to learn and improve my life. Thank you for sharing!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Michele, this is such a great post and wonderful book review. It is refreshing for me to encounter other people who are so fascinated and enthralled by the power of stringing together a series of words to create the most beautiful things in the world. I have been so fascinated by the English language for as long as I remember. I have spent hours in my youth and adulthood literally pouring over the dictionary just studying the roots of words. When I was much younger, in the days of encyclopedias, not only did I read every word inside those volumes, but I made index cards on a typewriter of every author and their works that were listed in the encyclopedias. My goal was to read every written work of fiction in the English language. My naive mind had no idea what a lofty (and quite impossible) goal that was. But I still have a love for words and writing and reading. It brings me solace, courage, and inspiration. Thank you for sharing this post. It will be featured on tomorrow’s #SpreadTheKindness Link Up.



  18. This sounds fascinating! As I was reading your review, I thought what an interesting spine for a high school literature class this would make for our homeschool! Could you see it being used that way? Do you think a high schooler would enjoy this writing style and level or would it be too adult for them?

    Thanks for linking up at Booknificent Thursday on Mommynificent.com!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can definitely see this being used for a high school lit class. At the very least, a teacher could use it to guide her students through each of the books. A high school student who is very interested in reading the back story behind the assigned book would love the insights Karen provides. Her style is very accessible, so I think whether a h.s. student would manage it or not would depend on their interest level.


  19. Michele, I love your thoughts on this book. I had never really thought about the two sides of virtue before. We will feature this post on the next Blogger’s Pit Stop.
    Thanks, Kathleen

    Liked by 1 person

  20. I used to read a lot growing up – I would wander around the house with my nose stuck in a book, unable to tear myself away from the narrative. But I do very little now that I am a mama of young children. I hope that once they are older and need me a little less, this will be a world I can hop right back into!

    And someone really enjoyed your post because they chose to add it to the BlogCrush linky! Congratulations! Feel free to grab your “I’ve been featured” blog badge 🙂 #blogcrush


    1. Thank you, Lucy, for the heads up about the Blog Crush. I saw a notification on Twitter, but didn’t really know what it meant.
      And I will tell you that when my four sons were all little, the only time I had to read was when my head hit the pillow. I’ve dropped many books on my face as I fell asleep. As the kids got older, I had a book in my purse for quick reading while waiting at basket ball practices, piano lessons, and pick up in the school parking lot!

      Liked by 1 person

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