I took the English class “Literary Criticism” in 2012. This class taught me how people have interpreted literature over the years- whether they’re looking at what the author intended, how the text affects the reader, or how the text stands completely on its own. While diving into Derrida and other writer-philosophers like him could be confusing, I always appreciated learning why we read the way we do and how we figure out just what books are trying to tell us.
On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books is about literary criticism, but it’s not just for English majors. The author, Karen Swallow Prior, makes classic books accessible to people who may not have read them before or only have a passing knowledge of them. Prior strives to teach us that it’s not enough to read widely- we have to read well. She examines the virtues present in different stories and how we can learn from them.
What On Reading Well gets right: Prior called me out on reading too quickly. Too often I fly through books because I’m trying to get to the next one on my list, when really I should slow down and engage with the text. On Reading Well reminds us how to read and actually learn from what we’re reading.
Prior does a great job of connecting virtues, such as temperance and prudence, with literary, historical, personal, and pop culture examples. She looks at popular and formative books such as Silence, The Road, and Persuasion. This makes On Reading Well a treasure trove of experience. Plus, Bible verses are frequently referenced to help the reader understand and place the virtues in context. You will definitely be encouraged to think by this book!
What On Reading Well gets wrong: It’s certainly not a crime for a book to contain academic references and notes. However, I think On Reading Well was marketed to appear as more of a fun, albeit educational, book than it truly is. Prior quotes extensively from other authors and thinkers, especially when she’s defining each virtue, and the little notations by each quote can get distracting if you’re trying to read for pleasure rather than for research.
Who should read On Reading Well: Anyone who appreciates literature and, in particular, taking a moral lens to literature. People who are interested in connecting stories with biblical principles. English students looking for accessible literary research and references.
Who shouldn’t read On Reading Well: Scholars who reject taking a moral lens to literature (On Reading Well mentions other forms of literary criticism but does not espouse them; this book sticks strictly to Sir Philip Sidney’s views). People who would rather read a book with less of an academic tone.