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Reading The Great Books Well Should Transcend Moralism


If it is true, as that eminent sonneteer Philip Sidney once averred, that the purpose of literature is to “delight and instruct,” then Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books is a guide to the great books par excellence — albeit one that emphasizes the “instructing” rather more than the “delighting.”

Sidney’s canonic 16th-century Defense of Poesy stressed prose and poetry’s moral mission. Literature, Sidney attested (with arguments borrowed from Horace), ought to win the mind “from wickedness to virtue,” instilling in the reader a “desire to be worthy.” Prior’s book is written in a similarly Horatian key.

In short, accessible chapters, each devoted to one of the cardinal, theological, or heavenly virtues, she chaperones the reader through 12 texts, delineating their examples of morality or immorality throughout. As she explains in her introduction: “Visions of the good life presented in the world’s best literature can be agents for cultivating knowledge of and desire for the good. And, unlike visions sustained by sentimentality or self-deception, the true.”

In this schema, Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities becomes an opportunity to meditate on what constitutes justice and injustice, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is employed to describe the heavenly virtue of diligence, and Anne from Jane Austen’s Persuasion upheld as an exemplar of patience. Not all of Prior’s picks are quite so “great booksy,” however: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road makes the cut, as do Shusaku Endo’s Silence and George Saunders’s Tenth of December.

Written for an audience unfamiliar with close reading or textual analysis, the book relies on what Leland Ryken’s foreword terms “good old-fashioned example theory.” The characters in good books, Prior believes, offer readers “vicarious practice in exercising virtue,” forming proper habits of thinking about right and wrong.

The Moral Approach

It’s a useful approach—provided that Sidney was right about literature being chiefly for instructing. At any rate, Prior deftly demonstrates how this sort of exegesis ought to work. In chapter three, for instance, she pairs Tale of Two Cities with the cardinal virtue of justice, drawing upon Aquinas, Augustine, and Josef Pieper to meticulously hash out what exactly was virtuous about Sidney Carton’s self-sacrificial death by guillotine.

Perhaps surprisingly, Prior concludes that “Sydney Carton is self-effacing to a fault.” True justice begins with “justice toward the self,” and while Carton’s death is certainly beautiful, it stems in part from an unhealthy disregard for the value of his own life—therefore not really “just” in the strict sense. Such careful parsings are among the book’s gems.

Dexterously, Prior mixes lowbrow references (to “Cast Away,” “Seinfeld,” and “Saturday Night Live”) with personal anecdotes to make these sometimes daunting texts more accessible to novice readers. But her method has its own vices and virtues.

The rub is obviously that literature does a great deal more than instruct: Sometimes it is to be all about delighting and hardly at all about instructing. Occasionally, we should read less for lessons than for sheer appreciation of the way art can hold a mirror up to nature. At other times, great books may very well lead us toward vice rather than toward virtue. Those intricate masterpieces simply don’t always lend themselves to neat morals. Nor should they.

Unfortunately, Prior’s volume too often opts for tidy summaries where more nuanced interpretations are demanded. Certain readings feel frustratingly didactic: True, The Great Gatsby, which Prior pairs with the virtue of temperance, shows us through the characters’ poor choices and intemperate lives that “the judgements made by our own limited perspectives must be tempered against the all-seeing eyes of God.”

And Tom Jones, in Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, “must learn that his natural inward state of goodness should be reflected outwardly by mores and morals.” But I occasionally found myself wondering whether these sorts of explications—these “musts” and “shoulds”—might actually discourage novice readers from pursuing tough books rather than whetting their appetite for more.

Of course, Prior never claims On Reading Well is a comprehensive introduction to How to Read—only that it is one fruitful way to approach literary criticism. Yet we can still question whether it is the best way to entice newcomers to keep tackling these texts. While Ryken, in his foreward, declares himself satisfied that Prior refrained from being too “moralistic,” not everyone will draw the same conclusion. Rather, some may find themselves wishing that Prior had more liberally sprinkled her readings with the advice she offers in one of the book’s best bits: the chapter on faith and Endo’s Silence.

Complexity and Ambiguity

This novel, a tale of 17th-century persecutions of Christians in Japan, has sparked controversy regarding what its “moral of the story” really is. The book has a notoriously ambiguous ending: When Japanese authorities threaten to slaughter Jesuit missionary Rodrigues’s parishioners if he doesn’t deny Christ and apostatize, he ends up acquiescing, unable to believe that God could want him to do anything that might physically harm his flock. Endo thus broaches a serious question: Is Rodrigues’s faith truly a saving faith? Is it possible for one to have a faith that denies Christ publicly yet still surrenders to him privately?

Dismissing easy summaries offered by the likes of Jesuit provocateur Fr. James Martin (God clearly wanted Rodrigues to renounce Christ) and other, more fundamentalist Christians (Silence is clearly a heretical novel that encourages apostasy), Prior argues both analyses are too simple. “Silence is a work of literary art and should be read as such,” she cautions. “Endo himself insisted it was not a work of theology.”

Too true, and it’s this ambiguity that makes Silence such a compelling work: “The complexity of the story allows for a range of conclusions…Like a parable, Silence raises questions even as it offers possible answers.” But although here Prior aptly warns against too much sermonizing in literary analysis, I nevertheless finished the book feeling that some of her own passages had felt uncomfortably like homilies.

Still, 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? If Sidney’s moralizing looms a little too large for comfort in Prior’s theory, perhaps it is merely because we postmodern readers, having forgotten how to really delve into a book’s lessons, require an overdose of the Renaissance poet’s wisdom.

“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?