On Reading Well: An Interview with Dr. Karen Swallow Prior

By Anthony M. Barr
October 17, 2018


Dr. Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University, a Research Fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, a Senior Fellow with Liberty University's Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States. This interview highlights her most recent book On Reading Well, which explores the link between great literature and virtue ethics.
 

Anthony Barr: Toward the beginning of the book, you write that "reading virtuously, reading faithfully, depends greatly on accepting a text on its own terms" -- can you explain what you mean by this idea of accepting a text on its own terms, and why that is crucial for reading well?
 

Dr. Prior: One of the features of modernity/postmodernity is the idea of constructedness: construction of the self, construction of knowledge, the constructedness of a text—and with these the concept that all truth is constructed and therefore subjective. Now there is certainly is an element of truth in the idea that much of what we experience and understand about the world and ourselves is constructed. This is, in fact, part of what defines modernity and secularity. But taking this too far results in solipsism. To read a text as though it is not a thing separate from ourselves with a particular meaning that can and should be understood is a hermeneutical approach that has gained traction in recent decades, and even seeped into more popular ways of thinking and reading to the point that we have to step back and remind ourselves that the text is not ourselves. Furthermore, a text can and should be understood on the basis of what it says in whole. For example, a book that contains racist language or characters is not a racist work if the work as a whole undermines and questions those racist perspectives. This is an issue that comes up from time to time with Huckleberry Finn and Flannery O’Connor, both of whom wrote texts deeply on opposition to the racism of their time. The same principle applies to the Bible: a verse cannot be understood apart from its place within the entirety of the Bible’s narrative arc.
 

Anthony Barr: Regarding the importance of reading quality literature, you write: "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.” I wonder though how we know if the vision of life we are presented with in a novel is actually good / true? I can imagine a skeptic saying, "we should be afraid to read promiscuously because of the danger we face of being tricked by an alluring but deceptive novel." What would your response be to such a skeptic?    
 

Dr. Prior: Of course, we are all susceptible to embracing false visions of the good life. If we weren’t, advertisements wouldn’t be as successful as they are at generating sales. But the nature of the written word is that it demands reflection from us. Writing is made up of letters that comprise words which signify ideas. Writing, therefore, must be interpreted to be understood even though we aren’t consciously aware of this once we achieve basic literacy.  The mediated nature of writing encourages critical thinking—even if we don’t always exercise it to its fullest. Reading widely—and critically—equips and strengthens our ability to weigh competing ideas against each other and to discern true visions from false. Of course, we need not choose our reading alone. There is a rich, deep critical tradition to guide us toward the best and most valuable works. We can stick solely to those works that are “of good report” and never run out of reading material or ideas to consider and weigh. Of course, an uncritical mind will be just as immune to a good vision as it is susceptible to the deception of the false one, but this failure cannot be blamed on reading widely.

Anthony Barr: At the end of your chapter on Huckleberry Finn (my favorite chapter of the book, by the way!), you write that "Huck’s brand of courage is that particularly modern kind described by Charles Taylor as the ‘quest for authenticity.” My heart danced when I read that because both Twain's novel and Taylor's book have meant so much to me, and I wonder if you could elaborate on what you think Huck shows us about our modern quest for authenticity?
 

Dr. Prior: Authenticity is essential to selfhood within the modern condition, when one’s sense of self is no longer assumed by a place and role conferred by birth. In The Ethics of Authenticity, Charles Taylor explains that with the rise of modernity, authenticity became connected to “self-determining freedom,” which he describes as the impulse to “decide for myself what concerns me, rather than being shaped by external influences.” The journey Huck takes—the existential journey which is concretized by his literal journey on the river—is to determine for himself what is right and wrong despite the false teaching of the world he has been born into and shaped by. It’s a journey all of us moderns must take as we stake out our claims in the world regarding our faith, our values, our politics, and our very understanding of who we are. In the pre-modern age, one was whatever one was born to be, and there were relatively few choices to be made that could possibly have changed the received trajectory of one’s life. The political and religious freedoms that were fought in the early modern era brought other essential and existential freedoms to us as well. The novel as a genre emerged along with these developments and is, ultimately, the literary genre that best expresses the modern concept of the authentic self. That Huckleberry Finndoes this so well is one reason it is considered one of the great American novels.

Anthony Barr: Regarding Endo's haunting novel Silence you write that "to read about an experience of faith as it falters is an opportunity to seek resolution not in the work of fiction but in the work of our own faith.” Could you share with us what that looked like in your own life? What were some questions or insights the text prompted for you in your own faith journey? 
 

Dr. Prior: One way of looking at the crisis of faith that Fr. Rodrigues undergoes in the novel is to see it as an expression of his difficulty in trusting himself less and God more. We know as believers that we are to be obedient, to steward our gifts well, and to show the fruit of good works. But at what point do our good faith efforts cross the line and become too much self-reliance? I didn’t explore this particular angle in my chapter on Silence, but this is the question the novel raises for me personally. I definitely struggle with knowing when being obedient and faithful turns into trusting God too little. 
 

Anthony Barr: I was really struck by how you connected MacIntyre's After Virtue to Cormac McCarthy's novel, The Road. You note that: "The world of the modern secular apocalypse offers something like the imaginary catastrophe Alasdair MacIntyre describes in the opening of After Virtue, one whose destruction leaves survivors trying to reassemble fragments of knowledge absent the traditions and structures that once gave the now decontextualized terms and facts coherence. In place of a ‘conceptual scheme’ are only echoes of transcendence.” The language of echoes immediately reminded me of Eliot's poetry, and particularly Four Quartets: ("footfalls echo in the memory..") In addition to Eliot's poetry, he also wrote a treatise on creating a renewed Christian culture. -- Do you think it is possible for us to rebuild a public, common language and culture of transcendence, or are we instead waiting for another St. Benedict?
 

Dr. Prior: That’s a good question. Perhaps part of living within a modern/postmodern world means the answer is “both/and”? The modern world’s sense of transcendence has been all but drained and, with it, the language to express these notions. On the other hand, we need not doubt that the people of the world know that sin exists, that it is rampant and destructive—they just don’t call it by that name. So much of living in a secularized culture is doing the work of translation and authentication: restating God’s truth in terms the world can understand and identifying the true works of God and his church from the false ones. We are going through such a process right now as the shell of cultural Christianity is being burned away by our political and cultural crises. As W. B. Yeats put it, “Surely some revelation is at hand.”

Anthony Barr: In your chapter on Austen's Persuasion, you note that "the literary form of Austen’s novels embodies the decentering of self that is necessary to achieving the habit of patience.” And then you make this really interesting observation that through Annie Eliot's patience, she "possesses her soul.” Can you unpack this idea of possessing one's soul through patience? Is this at all connected to Charles Taylor's ethic of authenticity, and if so how?  
 

Dr. Prior: I very much like the connection you have drawn out here. The virtue of patience is the habit of bearing suffering well. Since suffering in this world is certain, and because we seldom get to choose the kind of suffering we will endure, the freedom we have is in choosing how we bear that suffering is a kind of soul freedom. When we look at some of the most dramatic examples of suffering in history—that of the martyrs who chose unimaginable suffering for the sake of their souls—we can see self-possession in the extreme. The fact that for most of us our sufferings will be miniscule does not mean that being possessed of our souls will be easier. In fact, the great freedom we have can make such possession of ourselves, in some respects, even harder.
 

Anthony Barr: In the introduction to the book, you cite Matthew Arnold's poem Dover Beach and then note that "literary language, inherently resonant with layers of meaning, reminds us what fullness of language looks like" and further that "the language of literature can fill this gap between meaningful language about virtue and empty gestures toward it.” I know in my own life, when I am searching for language to describe experiences of love or sorrow or awe, I often reach for the lines of poetry that have lodged themselves in my memory. What are some poets and poems that have enriched your life? Are there particular lines of poetry that echo in your mind? 
 
The first “real” poem I ever memorized was Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” (Thank you, S. E. Hinton!). I still think of this poem every spring when I see nature’s first green, and I still adore every line and every image. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 is a poem is engraved in my heart, too. Some of its phrases come to me often, seemingly for no reason: “bare ruined choirs,” “consumed with that which it was nourished by,” and “to love that well which thou must leave ere long.” There are also many lines from John Donne that are permanently etched in my mind, for example:
Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you 
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend; 
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend 
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new…
And on a lighter note, we have a lot of snakes where I live, and I think of every one as Emily Dickinson’s “narrow fellow in the grass.” Unless it’s a really big snake—then I’m reminded of the one in Milton’s Paradise Lost.