Review: On Reading Well

Author: Karen Swallow Prior

Publisher: Baker Publishing Group

I had heard of this book several months ago through Twitter. It looked like an interesting book, and I had heard and seen many good things about the author, but I just hadn’t felt the push to get it. Then a short while back, I finally bought the book and then began reading it. Like a handful of other books I have read and reviewed in the past, this one also had me mentally slapping my past self and asking, “Why did you not read this book sooner?” Each page brought new depth to how I read and how I think about virtuous living. There is so much in this book that I know it is one I will page back through again and again (in fact, I already have).

Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well is a book about reading with intention, true. But it is also a book about philosophy and living well. As it says in the forward, this book is to “enhance both the literary appreciation and the moral life of the reader.” And in the words of the author, “it is not enough to read widely. One must also read well.” One must be attentive when they read, patient, diligent! Reading helps shape the virtues that we have not only by the moral lessons that stories teach but by the act of careful reading itself. But how do we read well, and what should we even look for?

As the author notes, there was once a time that an author wouldn’t have had to spell out what a reader should glean from their stories. These authors would have assumed that we would know the virtues implicit in the text. But we are, in a way, a post-virtuous society. We neither know what the virtues are nor what or where to look for them. Thus, Karen Prior gifted us with this book to guide us. As an author, I also came to better understand how to write. Storytellers once wrote good stories that taught moral things along the way. Contrast this with many authors today who wrap a story around a particular moral teaching. This does not make for good writing, and thus, results in poor reading.

While I read this book, I often noted that Karen Prior had insights into both the texts she chose and the application of the virtues found within that I had not thought of before. This book on reading is also about philosophy. Unlike other philosophical books, On Reading Well is grounded in reality, written for the reader to understand and apply, to enjoy while they read well. This made for thoughtful but relaxed reading. In addition, Prior teaches why we should read good works. Characters teach about character, and the habit of reading good books forms our own character. Once we have the good books to read, we must read them carefully, with intention, taking notes along the way, digesting all the wonders an author has to offer. Unsurprisingly, this book is designed with the notetaker in mind, allowing wide margins for comments. This book is a wonderful tapestry with three objects: virtue ethics, how to read, and how to live.

On Reading Well reminded me of How to Read Literature Like a Professor. It is a book that helps you see not just entertainment but the reason for enjoyment and application to moral thinking. Prior helps readers how to see the hidden gems the authors of these great works left for us and why reading great books matters. I grew as a reader in this book, and hopefully, as an author and in character as well. On Reading Well is a book to illuminate your reading and life for the purpose of edification and full enjoyment. It is a book that everyone should read, but especially for those who wish to read well.

Blessings to you and yours,

~Madelyn Rose Craig

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