Book Review: On Reading Well

On Reading Well Karen Swallow Prior

It might seem strange to some readers that I enjoy reading so much and find it so life-giving that I like to read books about reading, whilst others might nod sagely. On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books by Karen Swallow Prior is both a book about reading (and a very good one at that) and a book about living (and a very good one at that). The basic premise of the book is relatively simple: certain classics of literature are classics precisely because they teach or reinforce a key virtue or idea in such a way that being mindful of this whilst reading could lead to personal transformation.

I found this book immensely enjoyable to read – Swallow Prior writes beautifully, and with clear depth of knowledge about both the books she is introducing us to, and the virtues she believes they can teach us. I could see this book being immensely helpful to students of literature, as well as those of us who read a lot and need to fall in love with reading again, however unlikely that may sound. The one moderately critical observation I could make of On Reading Well is that in amongst analysis and clear affection for the texts, Swallow Prior does somewhat reveal key plot points for each book. The upside of that is that reading this book could work before, during or after reading the books she mentions, and it certainly isn’t required (Though where I had read the books, it did increase my enjoyment of the analysis!).

Virtue, as a concept, is something of an under-realised or over-ignored idea in our present society and culture. I hope and think that this book, read widely, could be part of a gentle revival of the virtues, not as ends in themselves, but as good things that point beyond us. You can probably tell that I thoroughly enjoyed reading On Reading, and so to give a sense of the book without giving any more away, I’ll share the contents, where a virtue is matched with a story.

Prudence – The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling
Temperance – The Great Gatsby
Justice – A Tale of Two Cities
Courage – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Faith – Silence (which I’ve reviewed on this blog!)
Hope – The Road
Love – The Death of Ivan Ilych
Chastity – Ethan Frome
Diligence – Pilgrim’s Progress
Patience – Persuasion
Kindness – Tenth of December
Humility – ‘Revelation’ and ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’

Swallow Prior’s introduction alone is like a warm bath and good meal for the reader’s soul: “read slowly. Just as a fine meal should be savored, so, too, good books are to be luxuriated in, not rushed through“. I took the authors advice and read On Reading Well whilst on holiday, with a pencil and coffee mug, at times where I could curl up and really focus on a chapter. In this way, this could be used as a sort of devotional, I suppose! To close this review, because this is without a doubt one of my books of the year, I would simply say that if you like to read anything, then this book would be well worth your time. The fact that it offers insight on some classics of literature and genuine reflection on what it means to live a good life are huge bonuses, to be sure, but at the end of the day this is a really, really good book.

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