wenty-five years ago William J. Bennett became famous as a disrupter of an education bureaucracy that taught the humanities in a bloodless fashion. Despite the immediate impact of Bennett’s The Book of Virtues and his later The Children’s Book of Virtues, our schools continued to avoid the use of moral examples in literature as a path to virtuous behavior. Education “experts” consider such an approach quaintly nineteenth-century.
Karen Swallow Prior’s belief in the importance of encouraging self-reflection as a path to virtue is similar to Bennett’s, but her approach is slyer—less frontal and more subversive. At first blush On Reading Well appears to be a primer, and it does fulfill that function—it is the first book that I have read in a very long time that has a “Discussion Questions” section. Prior’s book, however, is far more than a primer.
On Reading Well is a detailed explanation of how to read important works of fiction. Prior covers venerable texts, such as John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and contemporary fiction, such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Shusaku Endo’s Silence. Her roadmap dispenses with the “emotivism” of postmodern literary analysis and the way in which it “appropriates the language of morality…in the guise of virtue.”
Each of the book’s twelve chapters analyzes the work of an author in relation to a “virtue.” For example, Prior uses Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych to talk about love, Flannery O’Connor’s Revelation and Everything That Rises Must Converge to discuss humility, and George Saunders’ Tenth of December to explore kindness. She argues that fiction is a pleasure “to be luxuriated in, not rushed through,” but also an exploration of morality that can help a student become a better person and citizen.
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: she hears echoes of Augustine in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”; she alludes to a Klan rally that is happening nearby as she is writing; she discusses Tom Hanks’ lonely relationship with a volleyball in Cast Away.
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.
Though Prior takes an ethical view toward literature, she is not in the business of providing recipes for behavior:
Great books offer perspectives more than lessons. Literature shows us “how a different character, a situation, an event seems from different angles and perspectives, and even then how inexact our knowledge remains….” Cultivating and exercising wisdom is harder than consulting a rule book.
This approach requires Prior to handle philosophical as well as literary analysis, and she rises to that challenge. Most high school juniors taught with On Reading Well are likely to forget the plot details of The Death of Ivan Ilych, but we can hope that they incorporate into their lives Prior’s explanation of Martha Nussbaum’s distinction between empathy and compassion. If students do remember that distinction, it will inform later decisions that will influence their happiness and the happiness of others.
Prior also stresses the importance of “reading closely, being faithful to both text and context,” an undervalued skill in a world of clickbait and Instagram poetry:
The effects on our minds of the disjointed, fragmentary, and addictive nature of the digitized world—and the demands of its dinging, beeping, and flashing devices—are well documented.
Prior’s unpacking of Emily Dickinson’s “I dwell in possibility—/a fairer House than prose” made me wish she would focus more often on poetry (but perhaps, as with Bennett, there will be a sequel). Her focus on close reading also leads her to share the pleasure she takes in etymology, a joy reserved for those who slow down to savor literature word by word.
Prior’s defense of close reading both for pleasure and the pursuit of virtue may distract a reader from the most subversive element of the book:
The fullness of literary language echoes meaning—and reminds us that there is, in fact, meaning.
For the average educated person this statement may seem unnecessary, but these words are a declaration of war within the academy, which has fought to sever texts from meaning since the 1960’s. Their bloodless coup started with “deconstructionism,” a literary theory heavily promoted at Yale with roots in the work of Nazi collaborators Martin Heidegger and Paul De Man. By insisting that the fluidity of texts makes traditional concepts of “meaning” impossible, literary scholars elevated themselves to artists at the expense of authors and readers. Academic literary scholarship has increasingly become an exercise of self-referential jargon offering little insight into great works of literature.
If Heidegger’s legacy had remained restricted to literature, the world would have been impoverished, but our freedom would not have been damaged. Unfortunately, Yale’s contempt for textual “meaning” soon infected legal scholarship at Harvard, where Roberto Unger and then Duncan Kennedy borrowed the nihilistic framework of deconstructionism, spiced it with a little vague Marxism, applied it to legal analysis, and relabeled the concoction “Critical Legal Studies.”
Critical Legal Studies had, and still has, enormous appeal among elite law professors. By invoking the so-called indeterminacy of texts, Unger’s acolytes created a framework where judges could feel righteous while ignoring democratically approved rules and imposing the unwritten rules of the left-wing elite on the American public. In short, they have staged a successful assault on democracy—and almost nobody has noticed.
The deconstruction infection has recently spread to politics, where politicians of both parties, most on the extreme right and left, embrace the same assumption the deconstructionists and Critical Legal Studies academics make. In other words, texts lack meaning when it is expedient for them to lack meaning. Accordingly, we become less democratic as power moves inexorably from the legislative branch to the executive and judicial branches.
By embracing textual meaning On Reading Well is a small step toward rejecting those 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.