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Great Books Teach Us How (Not What) to Think

Great Books Teach Us How (Not What) to Think

Karen Swallow Prior poses for portraits at DeMoss Hall at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia on April 18, 2013 | (Photo: Liberty Univeristy / Ty Hester)

The following excerpt is from On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books, by Karen Swallow Prior, Brazos Press, September 4, 2018. 

My exploration in these pages of a dozen or so great works of literature attempts to model what it means to read well by examining the insights about virtues these works offer. I have selected from among my favorite literary works those that might help us to understand the classical virtues — the cardinal virtues, the theological virtues, and the heavenly virtues (more about these below). Sometimes the virtues are shown through positive examples and sometimes, perhaps more often (given the exploratory nature of great literature), by negative examples. Literary characters have a lot to teach us about character.

To read well is not to scour books for lessons on what to think. Rather, to read well is to be formed in how to think. In An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis argues that to approach a literary work "with nothing but a desire for self-improvement" is to use it rather than to receive it. While great books do offer important truths about life and character, Lewis cautions against using books merely for lessons. Literary works are, after all, works of art to be enjoyed for their own sake rather than used merely for our personal benefit. To use art or literature rather than receive it "merely facilitates, brightens, relieves or palliates our life, and does not add to it." Reading well adds to our life — not in the way a tool from the hardware store adds to our life, for a tool does us no good once lost or broken, but in the way a friendship adds to our life, altering us forever.

Yet receiving a work of art as an aesthetic experience is indeed "useful," though in a human sense, not merely utilitarian. Thomas Jefferson expresses this idea in a letter written to a friend in 1771:

Everything is useful which contributes to fix in the principles and practices of virtue. When any original act of charity or of gratitude, for instance, is presented either to our sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with its beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts also. On the contrary when we see or read of any atrocious deed, we are disgusted with its deformity, and conceive an abhorence [sic] of vice. Now every emotion of this kind is an exercise of our virtuous dispositions, and dispositions of the mind, like limbs of the body acquire strength by exercise. But exercise produces habit, and in the instance of which we speak the exercise being of the moral feelings produces a habit of thinking and acting virtuously.

Here Jefferson gets at the aesthetic aspect of reading literature. While the ethical component of literature comes from its content (its ideas, lessons, vision), the aesthetic quality is related to the way reading — first as an exercise, then as a habit — forms us. 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.

Karen Swallow Prior, Ph. D., is Professor of English at Liberty University