Karen Swallow Prior, professor of English at Liberty University, is tying literature together with the cardinal, theological, and heavenly virtues in order to help readers explore, deepen, and expand their faith in her new book, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books (Brazos Press, Sept.). The author, who was severely injured after being struck by a bus earlier this year, explains why she linked virtues—including justice, hope, and faith—to classic texts such as A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, and how studying these virtues helped her cope with the accident.
(This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.)
What are the 12 virtues and why write about them now?
Aristotle said virtue is the mean, the middle, between excess and deficiency. This is very simple, yet so rich with application in everyday life, politics, and theology. Occupying my mind recently is the decision by the Association for Library Service to Children to change the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award because of her portrayal of non-white people in her books. A virtuous view of Laura Ingalls Wilder would avoid the extremes of either sainthood or demonization. A virtuous view is one that would see both the shortcomings she shared with her time as well as the visionary role she had in questioning some of those views, recognizing her greatness as a writer as well as her fallibility as a human being. Virtues transcend time and affiliations. The meaning of the word virtue is excellence, or happiness, or flourishing. To understand what human excellence consists of is to understand the virtues.
What did you learn about the virtues while writing the book?
I was surprised at how complex and nuanced the philosophers and early church fathers were in their understanding of the virtues, and therefore how complex and nuanced their understanding of human psychology [was]. For example, from the chapter on temperance, [Thomas] Aquinas uses the example of a miser who eschews extravagance because of its expense: such a man is not temperate, for the temperate man would not desire extravagance.
How has studying the virtues impacted your life?
I spent two years writing about and trying to apply the virtues, and then I got hit by a bus. I found myself better prepared to bear that experience because I’d been working on an excerpt from the chapter on patience the day before the accident. I found myself as a patient, and writing the book helped me do that with patience. Also, I had been emailing someone about the chapter on the virtue of love, but also the humiliations experienced before dying. I was pondering that chapter, then found myself in the very same situation—needing help with a bedpan and in excruciating physical pain. So I’ve had to live out in a dramatic way some of the virtues I’ve been studying.
Can you talk a little about the structure of the book?
Each chapter centers on one author and [one] book. My editor Bob Hosack gave me one suggestion: he said to focus on the practice of virtue. As I began to look into them, the structure of the book changed to include them. The book features an eclectic mix of literature, which I chose deliberately to appeal to a wide range of readers. Some will be attracted to contemporary writers such as Cormac McCarthy; and for more conservative readers a chapter on Pilgrim’s Progress. It was important to present an array of literature, not focusing on one genre or time period.
What do you hope readers take away from On Reading Well?
I hope readers will read more attentively, not only for content, but also for form. We often miss the form: metaphors, poetry, dialogue, and word choice. We’re so obsessed with the final point, the moral lesson, that we see everything as a proclamation instead of a process of becoming and learning.