Reading for Virtue’s Sake: A Conversation with Karen Swallow Prior and Joshua Gibbs

The authors of two new books on reading agree: reading good literature well is not only enjoyable, it is also a veritable school of virtue. The pleasure to be gained by reading well is a skill that, like virtue itself, is achieved through practice.

What does it mean to cultivate virtue? What does virtue have to do with education? And what does virtue have to do with the books we read? These are some of the questions that Karen Swallow Prior and Joshua Gibbs contemplate in their new books, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books and How to Be Unlucky: Reflections on the Pursuit of Virtue.

Neither Prior, a professor of English at Liberty University, nor Gibbs, a teacher and education blogger from Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia, offers trite, simplistic answers to these questions. Their views of virtue are rooted in the difficult work of acquiring it, a process that involves imitation, repentance, and good habits. Literature, they claim, provides soil in which virtue can grow. I recently chatted with them about what this conception of virtue—and of reading—means for teachers today.

Our conversation has been edited slightly for clarity.  

David Kern: Both of your books are about the ways literature can cultivate virtue in readers, so I have been thinking about the extent to which a teacher should explicitly state that the books she is teaching have been chosen for that end. Should a teacher directly tell her students that she is teaching, say, Persuasion, because of its capacity to make readers virtuous? Or should she let the book do its work secretly, if you will?

Joshua Gibbs: I think it depends on the audience. When I read my little girls The Velveteen Rabbit or Frog and Toad Are Friends, I don’t tell them that I want these books to help them develop virtue. Similarly, on the rare occasion that I teach a room full of adults, I don’t often lay all my cards on the table and say, “All right, people, let’s learn to be good.”

High school students are a little different, though, because they are more apt to believe that the value of a book depends on its being entertaining, enjoyable, thrilling, funny. If a lit teacher passes out copies of Augustine’s Confessions to high school sophomores and pretends the book is going to be a page-turner, he is deceiving his students. If you give a high school student a book that is difficult and dull (when compared with, say, The Maze Runner), you need to explain why these qualities should not turn them off from reading it. “When the book is difficult to read, the book is doing its work on you.” Acknowledge that the difficulty comes from the moral gauntlet the book throws down. A book suited to virtue often requires multiple readings, although exciting books generally do not. That is what makes them exciting. But explaining that a book is hard to read (yet worth reading) will usually lead to a discussion of virtue.

What you do not want is for high school students to believe that adults find Augustine’s Confessions as enjoyable to read as they find The Maze Runner, and that once you’re forty, Augustine is downright titillating.

Karen Swallow Prior: When I teach general education courses in English, the students are usually first- or second-year students who are not majoring in English. I like to begin these classes with something that I refer to as the biblical basis for the study of literature. I’ve found that students, especially Christian students, are so utilitarian and pragmatic in their worldviews that describing the sheer goodness of literary study helps them overcome barriers to reading literature and reading it well that they don’t even realize they have. I cover over a dozen points in this lecture, and only one of them addresses virtue directly. In other words, there are many, many reasons to read good literature (particularly for the Christian), including the joy of it. Yet all of these reasons contribute to cultivating virtue in the reader who reads well.

I agree vehemently with Josh about the need to be transparent about the investment required by demanding books. However, as I write in On Reading Well, “the greatest pleasures are those born of labor and investment.” The pleasure to be gained by reading well is a skill that, like virtue itself, is achieved by repeated practice that becomes a habit. In my teaching, I tend to focus more on the virtues of reading rather than how reading makes us virtuous.

JG:  I agree, and find this a pertinent point when discussing great books, especially a long book like Paradise Lost, Jane Eyre, or the works of Dostoyevsky. For whatever reason, there is a stigma among modern Americans against “reading a book just to say you’ve read it.” On the other hand, consider the reasons people run marathons or climb mountains. There’s a sense in which the value of running a marathon is running a marathon. Running a marathon cannot be reduced to something more basic than running a marathon, for the man who runs it builds endurance, strength, self-control and so forth.

Is there some sense in which reading The Brothers Karamazov is a worthwhile thing to do for the same reasons running a marathon is a worthwhile thing to do? Discounting the temptation to pride, is it worth reading The Brothers Karamazov just to say you’ve read it?

KSP: The analogy is apt. We live in a culture in which we have forgotten that wonderful old adage, “Virtue is its own reward.” Likewise, running, mountain climbing, and reading good books are all examples of activities that are in themselves “their own reward.” It also just so happens that all good actions inherently contribute to building good character.

DK: So then what do you see as your primary calling as literature teachers? Is your first concern the books that produce virtue or the students who will be reading them in hopes that virtues are cultivated in them?

KSP: The first concern is for the students, of course. Books serve readers, not the other way around. Indeed, all of education is for human flourishing; each discipline and every task of education contributes to serving the person in order for that person to serve others.

With that said, we must also consider how we serve the person who has written a book (even if long gone) by stewarding his or her words faithfully and well. This means serving the author and the work by doing our best to read well, interpret soundly, and apply the wisdom gleaned honorably. Like all other loves, our love for literature must be placed in proper order. I’m reminded of the play (and film adaptation) Wit, which tells the story of an English professor who has devoted her entire life to the study and teaching of the seventeenth-century poet John Donne. It is only when the professor faces her own death that she realizes in the most profound way how her loves—deep and sincere as they are—have been wrongly ordered. Because of this, she has actually missed the most important thing Donne’s poetry teaches us.

JG: If the school were burning down, I would save the students, not the books. If a church was burning down, a sane priest would save the parishioners, not the Bibles.

Yet in the same way that I can only love my wife if I love God, as a teacher, I can only serve my students by serving the Canon. If a student were deeply offended by St. Augustine, I would sooner bid farewell to the student than remove the City of God from the curriculum. When it comes to most classics, “Either this book goes or I do” is an easy call, and that implies a kind of primacy to the Canon. As a teacher, I have accepted responsibility for the Canon without qualification, but I have accepted responsibility for my students in a highly qualified sort of way. If you were to ask a priest, “What matters more? The Gospel or the congregation?” I think he might balk, because the Gospel is for the congregation, and man was made to be the friend of God. I am a custodian of my students only because I am a custodian of the Canon.

DK: Karen, you talk of serving authors by stewarding their word, and Josh, you speak of being a custodian of the Canon. For the sake of this conversation, Ill take those two ideas as meaning the same thing. But what I am curious about is what that means, practically speaking.

Many teachers feel the need to protect the authorial intent of authors and are committed to ensuring that students are able to identify and express what authors were attempting to do in their works. Certainly, those teachers wish to avoid the sort of petty subjectivism toward which most young readers and, by extension, many classrooms are inclined. Is it the job of the custodian-steward to protect the voice of the author?

JG: The way we read Scripture is a tutor in how we should read all literature.  Very few medieval theologians spent much time talking about grammar, history, or structure, and yet, as David Bentley Hart pointed out in a lecture at Pepperdine several years ago, it was the mystical interpretation of Scripture that produced the most profound and cherished dogmas of the Christian religion during late antiquity, like the dual nature of Christ and the Trinity. If historical-grammatical hermeneutics are akin to discerning “authorial intent,” I believe mystical interpretations of Scripture likewise have an analogue in ways we could read Jane Eyre or The Brothers Karamazov.

KSP: Likewise, I like to say that reading literature well assists us in reading the Bible well. I don’t see the teacher or critic’s role as “protecting” the author’s voice. I think author, reader, and teacher/critic are all called to be stewards of language and meaning. All are in partnership in exploring, expanding, interrogating, and loving this gift that is a reflection of the God who created the world with words, sustains it through the Word, and advances his kingdom through the spread of the “good story.” We need to understand how we are both masters of and mastered by language. All language is both literal and metaphorical, and understanding that, I think, is the way to understand texts both human and divine.

JG: Karen, I appreciate your description of reading as a reciprocal work of mastering and being mastered. In a lifetime (or an hour), every human goes from being speaker to being spoken of, and being spoken to. In a good discussion of a good book, all participants are involved in this round-dance of being, and we have all (I hope) taken part in a conversation where new and profound ideas emerge. Yet, by the end of the evening, no one can remember who said what. Every heart was inclined toward the truth, and Truth inclined toward the speakers.

DK: “We need to understand how we are both masters of and mastered by language.” Is this something that can be learned and taught?

JG: As Beatrice says in the Divine Comedy, “If the will won’t will, nothing can force it.” Neither mastery nor being mastered can be forced on anyone. I believe both mastery and being mastered can be learned and taught, but mastery is far easier to teach. Being mastered requires a special kind of self-abnegation and christological self-emptying. To master is human, to be mastered is divine.

KSP: Such learning, such willingness, cannot be forced. But it can be infectious. To echo the old proverb, the love of language and literature is more caught than taught. Of course, this is exactly what I think Joshua is demonstrating in How to be Unlucky. The best approaches to education take the form of discipleship, which includes, of course, straightforwardly didactic messages, but depends much more on embodying truth by exemplifying and modeling it. I think a lot of such learning requires unlearning: unlearning bad habits of thinking and expression and being, often unintentionally and unconsciously acquired and handed down. Many of us have been taught, for example, that literary texts present problems to be solved rather than experiences to inhabit.

DK: I appreciate your point about unlearning, Karen. And I suppose that unlearning looks something like what Josh means when he talks about self-abnegation and self-emptying. In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis talks about how children need to be “trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust and hatred at those which really are pleasant, likable, disgusting, and hateful.” Can such training happen in any way besides infectious embodiment?

KSP: In “infectious embodiment,” I include not only modeling by the teacher but the embodiment represented by art and literature. I think we could also include the building of skills, practices, and habits. For example, memorizing a poem (which employs a very basic skill) is a form of infectious embodiment. A poem—or hymn, or Bible passage—that is memorized inhabits the mind and language of one who memorizes it.

JG: “Infectious embodiment” is a really fine description of what teachers ought to be doing in the classroom. I’ll be borrowing that one. All of my classes open with the recitation of a lengthy catechism comprising passages from our curriculum (Brontë, Milton, Burke, etc). By the end of the year, students have the whole catechism memorized. By the last two months of the school year, students are freely quoting from the catechism passages in their tests, in quizzes, and in class discussions. When they reference the catechism passages in their essays, they often do not put quotes around the quoted sections. They feel a deep sense of ownership over everything they have memorized.

DK: You teach in different settings and different age-groups, but you both run into the same problem: You both have to decide what books to teach. Subject matter (and perhaps the nature of specialization probably) offers a framework, but given the virtue-based goals you bring with you to the classroom each day, what are some principles that guide the choices you make about the books you will teach? What questions do you ask? How do you assess a book to determine whether it should be included in your curriculum?

KSP: The suggestion I make in On Reading Well is that reading any good literature well is a veritable school of virtue. The courses I teach fit into a larger curriculum and focus on periods, genres, or modes, so I don’t select works based on the virtues they convey. But I do select them based on their literary quality and significance. I tend to emphasize the historical and literary context of the works I teach because I think this is crucial in gaining a greater appreciation of them (even if their appeal is timeless and universal). I believe strongly that examining the way in which we are all—even the great thinkers and artists of the past—creatures of our culture, with both contributions and failings, is one of the gifts that great literature offers—and one that cultivates virtue.

JG: As a high school teacher at a classical school, much of my curriculum is already determined. That said, had I free rein over all the books in the curriculum, I probably would not change much.

In my mind, there are three tiers of classics. The top tier is reserved for only a few names: Homer, Milton, Dante, Augustine, and Plato. These are not merely masters, but masters of masters. The second tier is Austen, Burke, Boethius, Dostoyevsky, and similar authors whose work will likely never fall on the chopping block, but which has not attained to the ubiquitous value and estimation of the top tier. The third tier would be Twain, Shelley, Poe . . . authors who are old enough to enter the canon, but not so venerable that their work is exempt from all suspicion. Authors from the third tier have a provisional status in the canon.

Occasionally, one of these third-tier authors gets ousted from reading lists, and I don’t know that any self-respecting literature teacher needs to feel guilty about it. At the moment, Walter Scott seems like he might be on the way out, and I don’t think it’s a terrible loss. Given my responsibilities as a classics teacher, I would think less of a school that claimed to be classical and didn’t have quite a lot of room made for Homer, Milton, Dante, Augustine, and Plato. If a classical school didn’t teach Twain, I wouldn’t be aghast. If a classical school didn’t teach Burke and Boethius, I would be a little worried. And if a self-professed classical school didn’t teach Homer and Plato, I would not take the school seriously.

In my mind, college is a very different situation, and I think college profs have proved themselves in a way high school teachers haven’t. Having classical high school teachers only teach classics is appropriate to their level of expertise. I would echo Karen’s sentiment that any good book read well is suitable to the task of teaching virtue, but this assumes the ability of the teacher to show students how to read well. I think of high school teachers a bit like senators, and college profs like Supreme Court justices. High school teachers are elected to please the constituency (and the classical constituency is the canon), but justices are elected for life because they are living persons and we trust them more than we trust ourselves.

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