Finding Truth in Stories
‘On Reading Well’ explores morality through the lens of fiction
For as long as I can remember, I have loved to read. My father was a pastor and my mother was a teacher, so there were always books around the house — preeminently the Bible, but also works of fiction and nonfiction. I never caught flak for reading as such, but my mom would sometimes look askance at me when I told her I was reading fiction.
Fiction is weird. Pablo Picasso wrote, “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.” Leland Ryken, my college English professor, said the same thing about fiction particularly. It is “the lie that tells the truth.” That’s what makes fiction weird. It describes the human condition without narrating a historical occurrence.
Some Christians trip over this paradox. I vividly remember a conversation with an older minister who insisted that Jesus’ parables weren’t made-up stories. They actually happened. If they were made up, he reasoned, then Jesus lied. Since Jesus didn’t lie, His parables took place in real life. The minister simply couldn’t see how a made-up story could tell the truth.
Other Christians trip over fiction’s literary form. They are so concerned for fiction to tell “The Truth” that they write and/or read novels that are thinly veiled Sunday School lessons. I think this is why so much “Christian fiction” is so badly reviewed. Literary art gets sacrificed on the altar of making a point.
On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior avoids both of these errors. It shows how the best fiction uses literary art to display virtue or its opposite. That’s not all fiction does, of course. It delights, intrigues, inspires, enrages, entertains, and a thousand other things, too. But good fiction preaches without being preachy. It moralizes without becoming moralistic. As Prior writes:
Literature embodies virtue, first, by offering images of virtue in action and, second, by offering the reader vicarious practice in exercising virtue, which is not the same as actual practice, of course, but is nonetheless a practice by which habits of mind, ways of thinking and perceiving, accrue.
Fiction, at least the best of it, offers us a window onto life and into ourselves that can alter our perceptions and lead to a change of mind, being and action.
After an Introduction that explores the connection between literature and virtue, Prior divides her book into three parts grouped around a particular set of virtues, with each chapter pairing a particular virtue with a particular story.
Part One focuses on the cardinal virtues: prudence, temperance, justice and courage. The word cardinal derives from the Latin word for hinge. According to both classical philosophers and early Christian theologians, all other virtues pivot around these four. That’s why they’re cardinal. Prior explores these virtues through careful readings of: The History of Tom Jones, a Founding by Henry Fielding (prudence); The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (temperance); A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (justice); and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (courage).
Part Two examines the theological virtues: faith, hope and love. “In contrast to the other virtues,” Prior writes, “these virtues can be attained only when granted to us by God through His supernatural grace.” That is why they’re theological. The books Prior studies in these chapters are: Silence by Shusaku Endo (faith); The Road by Cormac McCarthy (hope); and The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy (love). For me, the chapters on faith and hope were the most challenging in the book, given the apostasy that lies at the heart of Endo’s tale and the hopelessness of McCarthy’s. Most challenging, but also most rewarding.
Finally, Part Three explores the heavenly virtues, which are the counterparts to the seven deadly sins. They are charity, temperance, chastity, diligence, patience, kindness and humility. Since Prior discussed charity and temperance in preceding parts of the book, she skips them here, focusing on the last five. The works she discusses are: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (chastity); Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (diligence); Persuasion by Jane Austen; “The Tenth of December” by George Saunders; and two short stories by Flannery O’Connor, “Revelation” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge.”
I have nothing but praise for this book. It exemplifies how to read well, both in the sense of reading closely and of reading through the lens of moral analysis. Perhaps the highest praise I can give the book is that when I turned its last page, I wanted to read (or re-read) the works of fiction it studied.
The Puritan divine Richard Baxter wrote, “Good books are a very great mercy to the world.” They are, and Karen Swallow Prior’s book shows why. Fiction, at least the best of it, offers us a window onto life and into ourselves that can alter our perceptions and lead to metanoia, a change of mind, being and action. Given that we are not as virtuous as we could be, let alone as we should be, that change is necessary. And if “the lie that tells the truth” aids us in making that change, then let us read it well.
Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Brooks (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2018).