On Reading Well

Finding the Good Life through Great Books

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Publishers Weekly starred review
A Best Book of 2018 in Religion,
Publishers Weekly

Reading great literature well has the power to cultivate virtue, says acclaimed author Karen Swallow Prior. In this book, she takes readers on a guided tour through works of great literature both ancient and modern, exploring twelve virtues that philosophers and theologians throughout history have identified as most essential for good character and the good life.

Covering authors from Henry Fielding to Cormac McCarthy, Jane Austen to George Saunders, and Flannery O'Connor to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Prior explores some of the most compelling universal themes found in the pages of classic books, helping readers learn to love life, literature, and God through their encounters with great writing. The book includes end-of-chapter reflection questions geared toward book club discussions, original artwork throughout, and a foreword by Leland Ryken. The hardcover edition was named a Best Book of 2018 in Religion by Publishers Weekly.

"[A] lively treatise on building character through books.'"--Publishers Weekly (starred review)


Foreword by Leland Ryken
Introduction: Read Well, Live Well
Part One: The Cardinal Virtues
1. Prudence: The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding
2. Temperance: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
3. Justice: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
4. Courage: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Part Two: The Theological Virtues
5. Faith: Silence by Shusaku Endo
6. Hope: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
7. Love: The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy
Part Three: The Heavenly Virtues
8. Chastity: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
9. Diligence: Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan
10. Patience: Persuasion by Jane Austen
11. Kindness: "Tenth of December" by George Saunders
12. Humility: "Revelation" and "Everything That Rises Must Converge" by Flannery O'Connor
Discussion Questions


"Karen Swallow Prior has written several critically acclaimed books, but in my book, her book on books is her best yet. On Reading Well is both a love letter to literature and a handbook on virtue, wisdom, and the good life. Each chapter delights, instructs, surprises, and captivates. Bound to be a classic, On Reading Well is an engrossing work that will appeal to book nerds and casual readers alike. Read it now, and you'll never take books for granted again."

Jonathan Merritt, contributor to The Atlantic and author of Learning to Speak God from Scratch

"On Reading Well is an exploration of the formative power of stories and an excavation of the life well lived, and we could scarcely have a better guide than Karen Swallow Prior. She is a person who loves (and has been shaped by) great books and who loves (and has been shaped by) the richness of Scripture, a scholar whose writing exudes both warmth and conviction. This story-saturated engagement with the virtues is pragmatic enough to touch the nitty-gritty of our lives and imaginative enough to inspire."

Tish Harrison Warren, priest in the Anglican Church of North America; author of Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life

"It sure seems like virtue is needed now more than ever. And what a treasure trove we have for encountering virtue in literature! Karen Swallow Prior is a lovely and wise guide. Take this resplendent tour--read this book! Your life will be better for it. The world will be enriched for your yes and receptivity to it. Thanks to Prior for using her beautiful talents to help us live as we were made to."

Kathryn Jean Lopez, senior fellow and director of the Center for Religion, Culture, and Civil Society, National Review Institute; editor-at-large, National Review

"You might not think yourself to be the kind of person to read a book about reading books. If you are trying to love people, to work well, to find meaning in your life, this book is for you. Karen Swallow Prior guides us through the big questions from great books with wisdom, insight, creativity, and compassion. Whether you are a wizened literary scholar who can lecture through the canon or someone who only pretended to read Shakespeare in college and couldn't tell the difference between Dostoevsky and David Foster Wallace, you should read this book. This is a significant and powerful work that will refocus discussion on the meaning of reading for spiritual formation."

Russell Moore, public theologian at Christianity Today and director of Christianity Today's Public Theology Project

"In a world dominated by tweets and texts, hot takes and sound bites, the call to read and to read well couldn't be more timely, especially for the people of God. I can't think of a better person than Karen Swallow Prior to relay this important word. She is full of the same wisdom and virtue that she argues great literature can cultivate in us all."

Matt Chandler, president of Acts 29 and lead pastor of The Village Church in DFW

"It is not enough to read widely, Karen Swallow Prior says in her thought-provoking new collection. We must also read well--and thankfully Karen takes her reader by the hand and patiently reveals how a close (and enjoyable!) reading of literary works ranging from Jane Austen to George Saunders can pull us toward the good life. This illuminating literary overview prompts us to examine more deeply the books we know and love, and to reexamine our own hearts and minds through the lens of great books."

Anne Bogel, author of I'd Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life

"Karen Swallow Prior is the English professor most of us never had. Few teachers are this clear, compelling, and Christ centered! In these accessible pages the hard work of reading virtuously begins to feel both attractive and attainable. Read this book carefully--ideally over several months, with the literature close at hand, and perhaps with a friend--and you'll have the opportunity not only to mature as a careful reader but to grow in grace and virtue."

Justin Taylor, blogger, The Gospel Coalition; editor, ESV Study Bible

The Author

  1. Karen Swallow Prior
    Joanna Sue Photography

    Karen Swallow Prior

    Karen Swallow Prior (PhD, SUNY Buffalo) is the award-winning author of On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books. She is a frequent speaker, a monthly columnist at Religion News Service, and has written for Christianity Today,...

    Continue reading about Karen Swallow Prior


A Best Book of 2018 in Religion, Publishers Weekly

"[Prior] enthuses about the transformative power of reading in this lively treatise on building character through books. . . . Prior ruminates on characters and stories written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen, Shusaku Endo, and Flannery O'Connor, among others, and does a great job of naturally weaving in a valuable education along the way. Prior provides not only insights into the narratives themselves, but also lessons on things such as the etymology of words (there is a sharp difference, for instance, between the meanings of kind and nice). The most valuable passages are those where Prior shares her personal reflections on the literary works she loves, how they relate to Christian culture, and the ways literature can influence readers toward spiritual growth and maturity. With exquisite writing, she demonstrates how 'reading literature, more than informing us, forms us.'"

Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Prior's book kindled my curiosities and commitments as a reader. . . . Throughout the book she projects the light of scripture, the reckoning of moral philosophers such as Aquinas and Aristotle, and the astute observations of a literary critic. . . . Having studied Christian fiction, a genre frequented by acute piety and trite convention, I am on the lookout for moralism. But I simply did not find it in these pages. Prior's unique fusion of literary reading and virtue ethics is fluent and nuanced, and it never collapses into lazy religious proposition or doctrinaire comment. . . . Prior's book reminds us that reading, while pleasurable and transportive and entertaining and thought-provoking, is also abundantly more. . . . Prior makes us hunger for a literature--and thus a life--of the good, the beautiful, and the true."

Valerie Weaver-Zercher,

Christian Century

"[An] excellent new book. . . . Karen's vision of 'the good life' is shaped around virtue--specifically, 12 different virtues, including prudence, justice, kindness, humility, and love. To help us understand them better, she gives us examples of books and short stories in which they play a crucial role. You'll never again look at The Great Gatsby the same way, for instance, after you've read Karen's words about temperance (an old-fashioned word that refers to moderation in our pleasures). . . . Read [this] book. You'll find that there's a lot more to morality than most of us ever realized--and that it's more attractive than we ever knew."

Gina Dalfonzo,

Christianity Today

"Prior's volume indisputably accomplishes what it sets out to do. It gives those curious about literature a framework for understanding how fiction can instruct, her method forcing us to again ask an old but crucial question: Can books actually make anything happen? . . . 'Just as water, over a long period of time, reshapes the land through which it runs, so too we are formed by the habit of reading good books well,' Prior asseverates. It's a profitable challenge to anyone hoping to improve his mind and life through the reading of literature: Can books change you? Can they make you a better person? Most importantly, will you let them try?"

Ramona Tausz,

The Federalist

"'It is not enough to read widely,' argues Karen Swallow Prior in On Reading Well. . . . 'One must read virtuously.' I confess that much of my own day-to-day reading is anything but virtuous, at least in the sense that Swallow Prior means it: reading closely, being faithful to both text and context, interpreting accurately and insightfully, making active choices to sit with a book in defiance of 'the disjointed, fragmentary, and addictive nature of the digitized world.'. . . Her point is well taken. We profit from literature most when we shut our senses to the siren songs of so much of contemporary digital culture and focus quite literally on the words before us. Kudos to the author, too, for somehow fooling this unvirtuous reader into reading a book about reading books."

James T. Keane,


"In this engrossing read of the virtues illustrated in some of [the] past classics, the author invokes the opinions of past philosophers, writers, and quotes from the Bible to sustain her arguments in defense of the moral quality being examined. . . . In compelling narrative, this writer engagingly challenges the reader to discover the content and the context of the moral qualities examined in treatises by Flannery O'Connor, Jane Austen, George Saunders, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and other noted authors. . . . A vibrantly stimulating read, one that will arouse the conscience of the reader."

Aron Row,

San Francisco Book Review (5 stars)

"Prior sets forth a thoughtful, nuanced vision of the relationship between morality and literature. . . . Some of her readings may initially seem surprising or unconventional, but she puts forth convincing arguments for them. Prior models the virtuous reading she praises, attending carefully to both the form and content of the works she analyzes. The book is a delight to read--challenging in its call to pursue a moral life yet charming in its invitation to immerse oneself in the imaginative worlds of great art."

Serena Sigillito,

First Things

"Prior proves an insightful guide to great works of literature. . . . On Reading Well is exquisitely written and will appeal immediately to a certain kind of reader: the kind who reads a book review about a book about the virtues embodied in reading books; the kind of reader who finds it impossible to pass by a used bookstore without slipping inside in search of a story that will stir a homesick hope within; the kind of reader who, like David Copperfield, reads 'as if for life' itself; the kind of reader who joyfully affirms with C. S. Lewis, 'My own eyes are not enough for me; I will see through those of others.'. . . But even if you're not yet that kind of reader, Prior beckons you to become one. You won't find a scolding tone or any long list of books you simply must read before you die. Instead, acting as the English professor we all wish we had in school, she humbly kindles a desire in you to leave her own book behind and reach for that daunting work of literature you've never quite finished and was never quite finished with you. I suspect this was one of Prior's goals all along."

Nick Roark,

The Gospel Coalition

"On Reading Well is a detailed explanation of how to read important works of fiction. . . . Prior's prose style is academic, but it has an easy conversational tone and lacks the preachiness that critics on the left invariably expect from a professor of English at Liberty University. Her interests are unpredictably timeless and contemporary. . . . As one reads more deeply into this book, it becomes clear Prior is addressing high school teachers and professors of introductory English classes at least as much as students. She implicitly recognizes that too many academics drag students through lowest-common-denominator exercises in postmodern drudgery and indoctrination. They simply lack the experience with which to light up a classroom with excitement about language or debate about the moral issues raised by the world's greatest writers. . . . By embracing textual meaning On Reading Well is a small step toward rejecting th[e] nihilistic philosophies of language that have damaged democratic institutions. It is too much to ask a book to retake all of this lost ground, but this one is a start. On Reading Well also provides a constructive alternative to our contemporary pedagogy for literature, a pedagogy that ignores everything from grammar to history's greatest moral debates. At the very least, Karen Swallow Prior's book should give many young people a reason to love, not skim, great literature."

A. M. Juster,

Claremont Review of Books

"Prior uses virtue as a lens through which to read some classic books, and uses the books as a way to understand virtue. . . . The literary criticism format makes it especially appropriate for students."

Charissa Crotts,

World Magazine

"With superb insight and thoughtful analysis, Karen Swallow Prior assists the reading preacher in discovering and discerning some of the world's great writers who know the road to the human heart, and how to move those hearts toward virtuous living. On Reading Well is a diamond mine of stratified gems awaiting extraction in pursuing that road. . . . On Reading Well invites one to savor slowly and thoughtfully, alone or with a serious reading group. Groups especially may find useful the appendix with five discussion questions for each chapter."

Willard E. Roth, FAPC,

Sharing the Practice

"An inherently thoughtful and thought-provoking read throughout, On Reading Well is unreservedly recommended for community, college, and university library Contemporary Literary Studies collections."

Library Bookwatch

"The idea behind this book is terrific, and the execution of it is good, too. The author . . . proposes that people can understand, absorb and live out great virtues by reading the best literature available. As you might expect from someone on the Liberty University staff, the book is marinated in Christianity, though, in fact, the message turns out to be much broader. . . . It's an engaging read that should motivate readers to rethink what virtues they have developed and which ones need some reclamation work."

Bill Tammeus,

Faith Matters blog

"Prior's book is important because it is teaching me how to be a better reader, a more discerning and thoughtful consumer of literature. And by doing so, I become not only a more learned individual but I'm also connecting with (and learning from) experiences, places, and people I might otherwise have missed."

Jamie Hughes,

Multiple Sclerosis News Today

"Through her engaging and concise prose, Prior reveals the virtues hidden in the famous works she discusses. . . . On Reading Well not only tells, but like a good piece of literature, shows. Books have the power to change a person, and Prior's is no exception."

Anna Timmis,

Hillsdale Collegian

"Karen Swallow Prior (KSP) has written a book to help us read virtuously or excellently. . . . KSP argues that the habits of mind necessary to read well cannot be found in short form pieces. . . . We need to wrestle with the text extensively. Having spent decades teaching college undergraduates to read, I can confirm her diagnosis and prognosis. . . . KSP is a blessed guide. The great good news is that [she has] given us a careful feast of words: twelve books for twelve virtues. . . . [This book is] the best I have read within the Great Text tradition this year."

John Mark M. Reynolds,

Eidos blog

"Prior's discussion is nuanced, distinguishing between false versions of virtues as well as how each virtue is a mean between an excess and a deficiency. . . . The book includes a discussion guide at the end, making this a great resource for reading groups, as well as for personal study. The work features delightful illustrations at the beginning of each chapter. . . . Prior makes a convincing case in this work for what many of us have intuited--that great literature can change our lives as we reflect on examples of virtue. And far from 'spoiling' the great works she discusses, she opens them up in their possibility to instruct us such that we want to go out and read them for ourselves. But before you buy the works she discusses, I would suggest you pick up On Reading Well, because I believe it will enrich your reading of the other books."

Robert Trube,

Bob on Books blog

"Like a skillful narrator guiding readers through the storyline, Prior shows us what to observe, especially the virtues dissolved in the dense texts. Without giving the whole story away, Prior provides snippets of the general storyline. Like an expert examining a gem, she probes the theme in multidimensional ways. What is most powerful is the way she makes the book converse with biblical principles. . . . Most intriguing is how Prior manages to tell a story within a story and highlights a core message from among many messages to give us a laser focus on the central virtue. . . . Prior shows us the power of discernment through reading with new eyes. Stories may be old but when given fresh eyes and perspectives, they become new or renewed with fresh understanding. I must applaud Prior for the fantastic literary skill she has in teasing out virtuous themes so easily and artfully. . . . Amazing!"

Conrade Yap,

Panorama of a Book Saint blog