Great Books Teach Us How (Not What) to Think

by Karen Swallow Prior , Christian Post Contributor |

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.

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