On Reading Well - Finding the Good Life Through Great Books

How much do I want to read more? 8/10

What a wonderful book. What if reading could help bringing virtues in our life?
The author go through a thorough exploration of the benefits of reading litterature, up to the very purpose of our lives.
A fascination read because of the author's style and interest in the topic.

Foreword - Leland Ryken

For Aristotle, a mark of good literature is that it “satisfies the moral sense.”
the very purpose of literature is the “winning of the mind from wickedness to virtue” and inflaming a reader with a “desire to be worthy.”
is in the nature of literature to place examples before us—examples of virtue to emulate and vice to repudiate.

Introduction - Read Well, Live Well

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.

-- James

I learned spiritual lessons I never learned in church or Sunday school, as well as emotional and intellectual lessons that I would never have encountered within the realm of my lived experience.
Most importantly, by reading about all kinds of characters created by all kinds of authors, I learned how to be the person God created me to be.

What better way to learn the difference between evil and good, Milton argues, than to gain knowledge of both through reading widely.
But it is not enough to read widely. One must also read well. One must read virtuously.

Reading well begins with understanding the words on the page. In nearly three decades of teaching literature, I’ve noticed that many readers have been conditioned to jump so quickly to interpretation and evaluation that they often skip the fundamental but essential task of comprehending what the words actually mean.


If a book is so agonizing that you avoid reading it, put it down and pick up one that brings you pleasure. Life is too short and books are too plentiful not to. Besides, one can’t read well without enjoying reading.
On the other hand, the greatest pleasures are those born of labor and investment. A book that requires nothing from you might offer the same diversion as that of a television sitcom.
Therefore, demand ones that make demands on you.

“speed-reading gives you two things that should never mix: superficial knowledge and overconfidence.”
The slowest readers are often the best readers, the ones who get the most meaning out of a work and are affected most deeply by literature.
“It is not the reading of many books which is necessary to make a man wise or good; but the well reading of a few, could he be sure to have the best.”

Read with a pen, pencil, or highlighter in hand, marking in the book or taking notes on paper.

Read books you enjoy, develop your ability to enjoy challenging reading, read deeply and slowly, and increase your enjoyment of a book by writing words of your own in it.


Sometimes the virtues are shown through positive examples and sometimes, perhaps more often, by negative examples.
to read well is to be formed in how to think.
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.

Reading well adds to our life in the way a friendship adds to our life, altering us forever.

Thomas Jefferson:
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

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.


plot reveals character. And the act of judging the character of a character shapes the reader’s own character.
Through the imagination, readers identify with the character, learning about human nature and their own nature through their reactions to the vicarious experience.

Taylor says that “we learn from fiction in something like the way we learn directly from real life.”
Just as in real life, a work of literature doesn’t assert but presents.
Reading literature, more than informing us, forms us.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics:
Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have these because we have acted rightly; “these virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions”; we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit: “the good of man is a working of the soul in the way of excellence in a complete life . . . for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or short time that makes a man blessed and happy.”


The Aristotelian philosophy of virtue is tied to a sense of human purpose. humanity’s ultimate end.
For Aristotle, this end is living well, or happiness (human flourishing).
For the Christian, however, the ultimate end or purpose of one’s life is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. This end does not always translate to our own happiness or flourishing. Quite the opposite, as the Christians in the novel Silence prove.

whether virtue is an end in itself or a means to some other end.
we can hardly attain human excellence if we don’t have an understanding of human purpose.
Human excellence occurs only when we glorify God, which is our true purpose. Absent ultimate purpose, we look for practical outcomes.
Severed from an understanding of human purpose, virtue becomes mere emotivism.
In other words, without an external, objective source of meaning and purpose, we are left with only our internal and subjective feelings. Emotivism isn’t simply having and expressing emotions but being overwhelmingly informed and driven by them.


In satire, the intended meaning is the opposite of the stated words; in allegory, the intended meaning is symbolized by the stated words. Satire points to error, and allegory points to truth, but both require the reader to discern meaning beyond the surface level.

Words carry resonances that spill beyond the bounds of logic and even conscious thought.

The stories in which we are immersed project onto our imaginations visions of the good life—as well as the means of obtaining it. We must imagine what virtue looks like in order to act virtuously.

All literature—stories most obviously—centers on some conflict, rupture, or lack. Literature is birthed from our fallenness: without the fall, there would be no story. “Only desire speaks,” writes Jacques Ellul.
“Satisfaction is silence.”
it is the nature of literature to express—and cultivate—desire.
Marcel Proust says that “it is one of the great and wonderful characteristics of good books . . . to provide us with desires.”

But the desires that are cultivated by books (and other forms of stories, including film, songs, and especially commercials) can pull us toward the good life—or toward false visions of the good life.
Reading well entails discerning which visions of life are false and which are good and true.

“The ultimate test of a book, or of an interpretation, is the difference it would make in the conduct of life.”

We have never lived enough. Our experience is, without fiction, too confined and too parochial. Literature extends it, making us reflect and feel about what might otherwise be too distant for feeling. . . . All living is interpreting; all action requires seeing the world as something. So in this sense no life is “raw,” and . . . throughout our living we are, in a sense, makers of fictions. The point is that in the activity of literary imagining we are led to imagine and describe with greater precision, focusing our attention on each word, feeling each event more keenly—whereas much of actual life goes by without that heightened awareness, and is thus, in a certain sense, not fully or thoroughly lived.

Literature shows us “how a different character, a situation, an event seems from different angles and perspectives, and even then how inexact our knowledge remains.”
Literature replicates the world of the concrete, where the experiential learning necessary for virtue occurs.

The cardinal virtues constitute the most agreed-upon grouping across Greek and early Christian thought. These virtues are prudence, temperance, justice, and courage. on which all other virtues depend or hinge.

Richard Baxter: “Good books are a very great mercy to the world.”

Part One - The Cardinal Virtues

Chapter One - Prudence

Rules rule.
adhering to rules is much easier than exercising wisdom.

Yet, because no number of rules or laws could cover every moral or ethical choice we face, virtue picks up where rules leave off. And where rules abound, virtue, like an underused muscle, atrophies.

Virtue requires judgment, and judgment requires prudence. Prudence is wisdom in practice. It is the habit of discerning the “true good in every circumstance” and “the right means of achieving it.”
it is “applied morality.”
A person possesses the virtue of prudence when “the disposition to reason well about what courses of action and emotion will best bring about our own and others’ well-being” becomes an acquired habit.
“Prudence is the knowledge of things to be sought, and those to be shunned.”

Prudence is considered the mother of the other three cardinal virtues.
While temperance, fortitude, and justice are moral virtues, virtues related to doing, prudence is an intellectual virtue, a virtue related to knowing. Prudence is “at the heart of the moral character, for it shapes and directs the whole of our moral lives, and is indispensable to our becoming morally excellent human persons.”
it determines what “makes an action good.
to apply general principles to particular situations in ways that avoid evil and accomplish good.


Do we practice virtue in hopes of achieving some personal gain, or is virtue, as the saying goes, its own reward?
Richardson’s literary accomplishment: Pamela.