Listening In: Karen Swallow Prior

WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith and today you’re listening in on my conversation with author, speaker, and Liberty University professor Karen Swallow Prior. What does it mean to lead the good life and how does one do that? Well, these are some of the questions that Karen Swallow Prior addresses in her new book On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books. Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. She earned her Ph.D in English from the State University of New York, and she’s written much about literature and the importance of literature in shaping an individual’s life as well as how it shapes culture and worldview.

Her previous books include the Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist.

I had this conversation with Karen Swallow Prior at her office at Liberty University in Lynchburg.

Karen Swallow Prior, welcome back to the program because we talked a couple of months ago. It’s really been fairly recently, whenever you did that essay on evangelicalism, which I found nourishing, and I got to tell you that I’ve also found this book On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books. So thanks for this book.

KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR, GUEST: Oh, thanks for having me on again.

SMITH: And you know, I want to start with just the title itself: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books. What is the good life? How would you define the good life?

PRIOR: Well, you know, that’s a classical saying and anyone who has studied a little bit of Aristotle or a little bit of moral philosophy will recognize that the term “the good life” comes directly from Aristotle and his ethics. And it’s often translated, interestingly enough, as happiness and it’s actually the same kind of happiness that our Founding Fathers meant when they talked about, in the Declaration of Independence, everyone’s right to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.

What they really meant was not just the kind of materialism or consumerism that we think of today, but really the good life, which is the virtuous life, which really anyone can pursue virtue, but freedom makes it easier for people to pursue the virtuous life and that’s what they were talking about.

SMITH: Well, I wanted to start with that question because it really is an important question, isn’t it? I mean how you define the good life will really order the way you live life.

PRIOR: Exactly, and if we watch television for 20 minutes, we will see visions for the good life that compete dramatically with what Aristotle and even the Founding Fathers were talking about. I mean, if you watch television or listen to music or read a Twitter scroll for very long, then you get these ideas that the good life consists of having this, having that, being in this relationship, or looking this way or having this accomplishment, and that’s not what Aristotle and moral philosophers over the course of history have meant at all.

SMITH: Well, since you said Aristotle and the moral philosophers, let’s transition even a little bit forward from there, because as you say, Aristotle set forth this vision of the good life, pre-Christian, though, understanding of the world. He set forth that understanding, I guess, most trenchantly perhaps would be and I’m a southerner, so you got to see accept the way—you got to understand the way—the Nicomachean ethics. Is that the way you would pronounce it?

PRIOR: Nicomachean.

SMITH: Nicomachean ethics, yes. So, again, my southerners and my long ‘i’s, right? And that was sort of the one where he laid out in sort of a very clear taxonomy, the virtues and erring on one side or erring on the other and he talked about the golden mean. And, of course, the Christian view has a little bit of a different view, but you incorporate both into your book. You talk about both the sort of, the cardinal virtues that you might find in Aristotle but also more theological virtues, the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love as well.

PRIOR: Right. What Aristotle meant by virtue, which again, can be translated differently as excellence, he just looked at what makes human beings human beings. And, as you said, he was pre-Christian. He wasn’t thinking about our being made in the image of God and the foundations of Christian theology. But he said the things that make every human being excellent or virtuous are things like prudence, temperance, courage, justice, the kinds of things that animals are not capable of. And a lot of those classical virtues that come from Aristotle and other pagan Greek philosophers actually are reflected in the Word of God. They may be talked about slightly differently, but we can find them there.

And then the church fathers after Aristotle, who—they studied a great deal of that, expanded on his ideas, but also identified theological virtues that are different from the ones that Aristotle identified because they aren’t natural to human beings. They actually are supernatural. They come from God and He is the one who perfects them in us. And of course the primary theological virtues are faith, hope and love.

SMITH: Yeah, yeah, of course, as the New Testament teaches us and the Old Testament as well. The first and greatest commandment to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. Right? But one of the things that I really love about your book is, so, okay, we kind of start off with this big picture, right? What is the good life? And the good life is a life that is virtuous and okay, so what does it mean to be virtuous? And then we identify the virtues, right? The ones that Aristotle identified, plus the Christian virtues, plus others in your book. And then you make a very provocative statement sort of downstream from those two is that okay if the good life is to be virtuous and if these are the virtues, how do we cultivate these virtues? And then you say literature is a way of doing that.

PRIOR: That’s right. Well, you know, I teach literature. What do they say—that if you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If you’re an English professor, everything looks like a book.

SMITH: Well, it as a writer and reader myself though I will have to say that I share that view number one but number two, you make a really, really good case for it. So can you begin to make that case? Why does reading, why does reading great literature, specifically, cultivate virtue in us?

PRIOR: And of course I want to say that that’s not the only way to cultivate virtue, but it’s a really good way. And so I think to paint it in broad strokes at first, what we need to pay attention to when we read literature virtuously is to attend to not just content but form. In other words, not just what a story says, but how it says it. That’s really what sets literary art apart from other kinds of writing. If we read an instruction manual, we are reading it just to get information and we get the information and we use it. But literature is an art form and so we don’t read it for information, although we certainly can gain a lot of information from reading it, but we read it for the experience that it conveys and it conveys experience through the written word that is revealed in time. One word at a time.

SMITH: Yeah, it’s a linear thing, but when we’re building a picture that picture lives in sort of real time, even though we might be building it in a linear way. Well, you say this very early in the book that I think begins to get at this, and I’m gonna read this to you and ask you to say more about it and if it is an accurate sort of embodiment of what you just said: “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.

PRIOR: Yeah, that’s pretty good. I am glad I wrote that. So again, just to return to the kind of image that we see in the commercial breaks during the evening news, those commercials present us with a vision of the good life. Now it’s a false vision, but it presents an image. But it doesn’t require us to practice virtue. It doesn’t require us—because we just simply receive it. Literature presents images not always have the good life—sometimes there are negative examples by which we have to figure out what the positive example is—but because of the way it’s revealed, because it’s an art form, we are forced to make judgements and assessments and interpretation along the way so we actually get to practice virtue simply by thinking about the story that’s being told.

SMITH: Well, I’m a big fan of Lord of the Rings. I love both the book and the movie, but the book is a very different experience than the movie. Whenever, for example, J.R.R. Tolkien calls Aragorn Aragorn, that’s his name, but he’s also a son of Arathorn, he’s also Strider, he’s also a ranger, he’s also the king ultimately, and every time Tolkin sort of gives us a different word or different phrase to describe him, it completes a little bit more of the picture that we’re building on our own mind. In other words, we are interacting with the text, aren’t we?

PRIOR: Exactly, exactly. And so literature, because it uses words and we are language-driven creatures, we process our emotions, our feelings, our thoughts, our judgments in real life through words, and we do that with literature as well. And so when we learn to read good literature and to read it while we’re getting the best practice available.

SMITH: Well I want to drill down on what you just said there: Read good literature and read it well because you spend a fair amount of time talking about both of those here. And in some ways, you know, Karen, if I might sort of push back on you a little bit, you say to read good literature, but you also say to read promiscuously as well, which means that you’re not always reading great literature. Reconcile those two ideas.

PRIOR: Sure, sure. And that’s a phrase that I draw from John Milton who talks in his famous tract on, well, what we would call today free speech or freedom of the press. He talks about reading books promiscuously in order to develop discernment and judgment and lo and behold, virtue. The word promiscuous in its etymology and its original meaning simply means inordinate mixing, mixing things together. And so Milton thought that as strict a Puritan as he was, he thought that Christians should read a different ideas, competing theologies, even heresy that we should read it, judge it, understand it, and, therefore, refine our own thinking and understanding because we weigh and judge one idea against another and through that kind of dialectic is actually how truth emerges.

SMITH: Well, and we’re going to talk about some of the individual books that—and short stories that you recommend—and not all of them have an explicitly Christian worldview and we’ll get to some of those in a minute.

But before we do that, I wanted to just again that again read great literature, but read it well. Talk about the reading it well part because you say for example, things like you should read a book with a pen in your hand or a highlighter or a pencil or something. In other words, you can read great literature but not read it well and not getting nearly as much from it.

PRIOR: Yeah. I think that one of the illusions many readers today operate under is that if you read well, that means you read quickly and effortlessly. Nothing could be further from the truth. Reading good literature and reading it well requires attention. It requires time. It requires often reading slowly and it requires interacting with the text, at least with our minds, but for me, maybe I’m not as bright as some people, but I need a little bit of a crutch and for me that crutch is the pen, the marker to stop, to mark something, to put a question mark, to emphasize something that helps me to remember it more later on, but even more importantly, it just helps make sure that I’m understanding as I read.

SMITH: So, Karen, you’ve introduced us to the virtues. You’ve introduced us to the idea that reading well, the great works of literature helps us cultivate virtue. And you’ve also talked to us about what reading well means. Let’s talk about some of the individual books that, and not all books, some short stories, that you have identified here. And I’m going to start with—where you start in part one the cardinal virtues, prudence, temperance, justice and courage. We’re not going to talk about all of those, but I did want to sort of begin at the beginning because we think of the novel as having sort of always been with us and certainly long narratives have always been with us since the Odyssey, since Homer and the Odyssey. But the novel is really kind of a modernist invention. It’s an 18th century invention. Can you talk about the origins of the novel and particularly two novels that you mentioned in your book? One is Pamela and the other one is Tom Jones and what they do to cultivate virtue.

PRIOR: And not that Tom Jones that’s in Las Vegas. A lot of people—(crosstalking) So many people just assume the novel has been around forever, but it’s really very much a modern literary genre. It’s the genre of modernity. It actually reflects what I talk about in my novel Classes as the rise of the individual, which really defines modernity. And of course there’s a longer, more complicated history than these two novels, but the two novels that really sort of struck the beginning of the novel is Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Henry Fielding’s A History of Tom Jones, which is the focus of that first chapter on the virtue of prudence. And what’s interesting is these are — this was sort of like a literary battle, a battle of the low church Methodist, Samuel Richardson, against the high church Anglican who was a classicist and a lawyer, Oxford educated Henry Fielding.

And so we see this battle between—out of which the modern idea of the individual and stories about individual and how those stories matter arises from those two works. And I focus on prudence because Fielding himself or his omniscient narrator in the novel tells us that that’s really the overarching theme. It’s a building’s roman or a novel of development about a young man who is an orphan. And, by the way, one of the reasons why so many of those 18th and 19th century novels are about orphans—novels like Jane Eyre and Great Expectations and many others—is because that’s kind of a metaphor for how we exist in the modern age. We are orphans who have to develop our identity and sense of self.

SMITH: Yeah, no matter who we are, in some ways we’re all orphans. Yeah. Well, one of the things that was interesting to me about that first chapter and comparing and contrasting those two novels was because it really highlighted that even pursuing virtue is not an uncomplicated thing. We could say, for example, I want to pursue prudence or I want to pursue even faith, hope and love, right, but our motives are often impure and alloyed, shall we say. So, for example, you can pursue prudence because it is a good in and of itself to be prudent or you can be prudent because it produces good things in your life. A prudent person typically doesn’t do stupid things. It doesn’t make the kinds of mistakes that cause bad things to show up in their life. So, sorting out even the motives for pursuing the virtues is what these novels help us see.

PRIOR: And what prompted Fielding to write A History of Tom Jones is that he viewed Samuel Richardson’s novel, Pamela, as promoting the idea that virtue can be rewarded because it centers on a young lady who does everything to protect her virtue and not to be—give into the overtures and even the near rape of the wealthy man pursuing her. She preserves her virginity, preserves her virtue, and without giving it all away, she gets rewarded in the end by marrying and living happily ever after. Well, Fielding was incensed at this idea that we should be virtuous in order to get something out of it, in order to get wealth or marriage or live happily ever after. He was of the school that is expressed in the old aphorism that virtue is its own reward. And so he wrote a novel that he saw as a counter against Richardson’s. And each one of them represents a sort of extreme. And again, when I talked about how truth emerges from the dialectic, and those two early novels actually were the foundations upon which later novelists drew the best elements and then developed the high art of the novel in the 19th century.

SMITH: And you also make the point that those novels really speak to us today because even in the Evangelical church, right, we talk a lot about virtue. We talk a lot about virginity, we talk a lot about chastity. And one of the things that you say here is that even as evangelicals, even as Christians who supposedly take the Bible as our guide, we often have perverted understandings of those words.

PRIOR: Right. I mean, I think one of the points I make in the book is that we often in evangelicalism, unfortunately, we use the word virtue is sort of a euphemism to mean sexual purity or virginity. And that is one of the virtues as I talk about in the in the book, chastity, but there are so many other virtues. And the philosophers and church fathers give us a wealth of information to show how each virtue depends on the other to be a virtuous person, but they are very different and we have to understand the differences between them in order to pursue all of them.

SMITH: Well, we’ve got to move along from Pamela from—we’ve got to move from the 18th century, unfortunately, to the 19th century. And let’s talk a little bit about Huckleberry Finn. Some people call it the great American novel. The first two we talked about were British novels, of course, 18th century. Now by the time we get into the 19th century and Twain and Huckleberry Finn and the great American novel, those famous lines in the last, I don’t know, not the last line, but the last paragraph — lighting out for the territory, sort of a novel about the westward expansion. I mean, there’s so much in that book that defines the American character. One of the things that you talk about in this book, specifically, is the idea of courage, what does it mean to be courageous. And you say that both Huck and Jim, the slave, are courageous in different ways.

PRIOR: Right, right. And, of course, I love talking about the virtue of courage because it’s a good example of what Aristotle meant by all the virtues. Every virtue, he said, as you mentioned before, is a mean between an extreme of excess and an extreme of deficiency. So courage is the virtue that is the mean or the moderation between a deficiency of cowardice, which is obvious, but also the excess that would be rashness. So, when we think about courage, I think especially today, we tend to just think about the rash or bold part. We think anyone who’s bold or adventurous actually is courageous. And that’s not true because the church fathers taught us that courage is measured not by the amount of risk that’s taken, but by the amount of good that it preserves. And so we see in the story of Huckleberry Finn that he is courageous because—I think most of us know the story—he basically mistakenly believes that he’s doing the wrong thing by protecting Jim, the runaway slave, because his society has taught him that that’s wrong and that slavery is okay. And so he actually thinks that he risks going to hell by hiding Jim and he chooses to do it anyway, so he takes a risk, he’s wrong, so he’s not the perfect virtue of courage, but I think that Jim, because he is more knowledgeable and he ends up risking losing his freedom in order to protect the life of Tom whose foolishness has gotten them all into trouble. But Jim steps out and tries to protect him and it does so willingly giving up his freedom. Although in the end it turns out right. But Jim, I think, presents the virtue of courage best in that story.

SMITH: Yeah. And so this idea of awareness and the idea of not just rashness, but being aware of what you’re risking is really important to the idea of courage. The other thing that’s really important to the idea of courage is just the—it doesn’t mean the absence of fear, that fear you can be fearful and still be courageous. In fact, in some ways, it’s even more so.

PRIOR: If you’re not fearful, then it’s not really courage.

SMITH: I mean, you used the example of a child who runs out into traffic chasing a ball, right? That’s rash, but it’s not courageous because the child has no awareness that something bad could happen. But then the man who goes into the street to save the child, maybe to push the child out of the way and is—you know, risks his own life. That is correct.

PRIOR: Right, exactly. I like to joke when people say I’ve done something brave or courageous, I say, well, either that or I’ve just done something really stupid. And it’s kind of a joke, but we do have to think about that because courage, again, is not measured by the risk that’s taken, but we have to preserve good in the acts of boldness that we take and that requires knowledge, that requires understanding and embodying the other virtues as well.

SMITH: We don’t have time to go into all of the books that you’ve talked about, but I did want to mention one more just because—The Great Gatsby—just keeps, again, now we’re into the 20th century with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby and it just keeps showing up in our lives as well. I think it was written around 1924-25 or published then. And almost immediately there was a movie version of—silent movie version of it and there’ve been at least two others. There was a 70s version with Robert Redford and then the one recently with Leonardo Dicaprio. That story of sort of the self-made man but also the self made man who doesn’t fully want the world to know who he is has—just continues to resonate with the American psyche. And even to the point of, I mean, in some ways, Donald Trump is the Great Gatsby of the 21st century, right?

PRIOR: Absolutely. I mean that does help to explain some of his appeal to so many people, that kind of figure is deeply ingrained in the American society. We talked earlier about how the 18th century English novel was the expression of modernity, well, and the founding of America took place in the midst of that, and so very much in the spirit of this country’s founding is this idea of being a self-made person, inventing yourself, inventing your identity, moving up the social ladder as Gatsby does in the story. And taking great risk as he does. He’s a much more complicated character because he does a whole lot more damage than good. Very little good. But it’s still, it’s fascinating because I think part of the American temptation is to risk these things.

SMITH: Just a final thing before we kind of leave this sort of section here is that, say a couple of words about irony, satire, and point of view. I mean, in the works that we’ve said, for example, Pamela is what is often called an epistolary novel. It was written in letters and then by the time you get to the 19th century where we talked about Huck Finn, written in the voice of a young kind of innocent young man. But of course Mark Twain, we know, is brilliant. So that ironic distance between Huck’s voice and Jim’s voice is what creates a lot of the interest and the humor and sort of the biting social satire as well. And then when you get to the 20th century, you get a narrator like in The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway, who is very self aware. He’s as educated as F. Scott Fitzgerald. I mean, he’s kind of got this almost omniscient—I mean there’s a coming of age in Jay Gatsby, but there’s also his coming of age as well. It’s much more complicated point of view.

PRIOR: Right, right. So, irony and satire are subjects I love. They’re very complicated, but just to paint it in basic terms, understanding the tone in the voice of a narrator is essential to reading well. In fact, one of the most common errors that we make in reading is that very one. So, every time we hear of a story in the news of someone who wants to have Huckleberry Finn removed from this library shelves or from the school curriculum, it’s because they don’t reck—I know—every time it turns out that they don’t recognize the ironic elements of the story, the satirical elements. They take it at face value and they think that the characters in the story who were in favor of slavery and who are racist are in fact reflecting Twain’s views, which is the exactly the opposite case. So, reading well—this is where the form matters more than the content. We have to understand the form and tone and irony are part of the form. And we do see as we watch literature develop and go later into the modern period, these voices get more sophisticated and more nuanced. Less earnest, oftentimes, and we have to his readers, be attuned to those kinds of things in order to understand what the story is actually saying.

SMITH: Karen, in our discussion so far we’ve focused on what we call the cardinal virtues: prudence, temperance, justice, courage. We now want to talk a little bit—I want to talk a little bit more with you about the theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. And you’ve used three books to talk about those. One’s Silence by Shusaku Endo, which has recently made into a movie by Martin Scorsese, which was a very powerful movie, very powerful book, really frustrating book, really frustrating movie. And I’m gonna let you say a word about that in a minute. The Road by Cormac McCarthy, which was also made into what I consider to be a great movie. And The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy, which is kind of more of a novella. It’s kinda, it’s not a short story, but it’s not quite long enough. First of all, none of these—these are the Biblical virtues, right? The ones that were hear in I Corinthians 13, faith, hope and love. The greatest of these is love. Sort of a clear, unambiguous statement of the Christian virtues. And yet the books that you have chosen to illustrate them are anything but clear and unambiguous, right?

PRIOR: Thanks for pointing out the irony. Yeah, I think one of the ways that the theological virtues are different, as I mentioned before, is that they do come from God. So there’s a supernatural element. They aren’t just human excellencies. They are things, gifts from God and they are simple and clear in maybe their definition and how the Bible extols them and commands them of us. But we’re living out our Christian walk in fear and trembling, right? And so our faith is different every day. We don’t always know what constitutes love. We know we’re supposed to love, but it doesn’t—we don’t know what that looks like in every difficult situation.

SMITH: Well, and also, too, the love that God has for us, which we are to emulate, right? I mean, that is the love, that is the model, that is the standard. There’s no way we can achieve it, right? I mean, apart from the grace of God, there’s no way. I mean, so while it is clear we are to love God and love our neighbor, man oh man, is that hard and so beyond us in any given moment.

PRIOR: Right. And there and there’s so many different kinds of loves and I draw from C.S. Lewis’s famous book, The Four Loves. We’re unfortunate—I love the English language, I’ve studied it my whole professional life, but one limitation of it is that we have this one word that’s required to do all this work for this very complicated thing that is manifested in various, in very different ways, in different kinds of relationships.

SMITH: Yeah. You know, John Stonestreet, of course, who I worked with at the Colson Center is fond of saying that sometimes we have the same vocabulary but different dictionaries as Christians today versus, you know, Christians in the past or as the secular world. Love is a great example of that. The meme love is love, which we will often see on Facebook and on billboards and everywhere else, could not be more deceptive, could not be farther from the truth, right? And for all the reasons that you talked about. The other thing that is interesting to me about this section, Karen, was that you used a book like Silence by Shusaku Endo, a Japanese writer, who—really it’s a dark vision of the world in some way. And you also use The Road by Cormac McCarthy, which is an apocalyptic book and post apocalyptic book.

PRIOR: I have dark tastes as you might have guessed.

SMITH: Well, yeah. But it also, you make a couple of points about why we should read these books that are apocalyptic in their vision and why books that might be dark and at least on the surface appear to be nihilistic in some way,  in fact, are stories that point towards hope. Can you say more about that?

PRIOR: Yeah, I mean, well, if you think about the actual meaning of the word apocalypse, which is revelation, these dark, nihilistic apocalyptic stories strip so much away and leave us with the bare essentials of human life and existence and being faced with that, again, I’d much rather face to in a book then in real life, but just contemplating what life and human dignity and the essential human nature consists of in being faced with such a world can help us to strip away all the excess that we’re surrounded with in this fragmentary, noisy world, so that we can understand what’s most important in our real life.

SMITH: Do you think that’s why—and, maybe, I don’t mean to lead you with this question, but it is interesting to me that we’ve seen a lot of apocalyptic stories in the last, you know, few years. I mean, everything from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest to The Road by Cormac McCarthy—

PRIOR: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

SMITH: That’s right. The Walking Dead, you know, on television we see this. Handmaid’s Tale. I mean, the list just goes on and on. Westworld. I mean, you know, as I’m talking I just keep thinking of more and more examples. Do you think it’s because we live in an age that is hopeless or is longing for hope?

PRIOR: I think that’s exactly it. I think that we, because we live in this secular age as Charles Taylor calls it, where the transcendent and the eternal are not assumed. Of course they still exist, but we aren’t born in a world where we automatically and collectively assume them. We have to find them. We have to search and you know, Christians, we know what the source is, but the rest of the world, and even Christians who are part of this world—we live in a world in which what is eternal and transcendent is not assumed, so we still are made in God’s image, so we still have the capacity and the desire to hope and to find meaning. So we’re searching for it.

SMITH: Part three of your book are the heavenly virtues and you identify them as chastity, which you’ve already talked about a little bit, diligence, and you use Pilgrim’s Progress as an example of diligence, patience and Persuasion by Jane Austen, kindness, a short story by George Saunders who is becoming one of my favorite writers, 10th of December, and humility you talk about two stories by Flannery O’Connor, Revelation and Everything That Rises Must Converge. We’re going to have to dispense with a lot of that just in the interest of time, but let’s just stipulate for the record: Go read all of those works, right?

PRIOR: I agree.

SMITH: But I did want to talk to you a little bit about kindness because one of the—you made a distinction in your book in your discussion of kindness that I was really glad that you made. And maybe, again as a Southerner, you know, people are so “nice” in the South that we sometimes confuse niceness with kindness. And this story helps that. But also Flannery O’Connor, a lot of Flannery O’Connor’s stories are focused on sort of that distinction between—

PRIOR: She’s not very nice.

SMITH: No, no, that’s right. But it is kind—sometimes it is kind not to be nice or being nice is cruel rather than kind.

PRIOR: Exactly. Well, I think the most helpful way to illustrate that truth is to talk about the etymology of the word. The word kindness comes from the same word that we get kin. Now as a Southerner, you know that word. Kin is family. And so really to be kind means to treat someone like they are family and if we’re part of a family, we know that doesn’t—that’s not always necessarily nice. Families involve love, of course, but sometimes tough love, sometimes harshness, sometimes, you know, honesty and reality, sickness, death, all of these things that are not nice, but kindness is really ultimately speaking the truth in love. And I think George Saunders’ story, which is about a potential suicide, who in a such an amazing and odd paradox gives up his death in order to save a young boy’s life, is just a moving and powerful example of that. Now I said it’s kind of a tough read. George Saunders is not a Christian and his worldview in language do not necessarily reflect what a lot of Christian readers will look for, but it’s powerful stuff.

SMITH: Yeah, he’s a really interesting guy though. And he’s one of the two living authors. I think Cormac McCarthy—Cormac McCarthy is still alive, right?

PRIOR: Yes, I think so.

SMITH: And George Saunders, I think, are the only two living authors that you’ve used a stories here which is—also kind of brings up this idea of how do we know what great literature is? Is it literature that’s stood the test of time, generally?

PRIOR: I mean, generally speaking, yes and when it comes to newer works, of course, they haven’t passed the test of time, so I think that there are other objective qualities that we can look for. Good literature doesn’t tell you what the solution is. It doesn’t give you an answer. It engages us in a process of thinking and experiencing and questioning. And it does so in a way that treats words like the way that a painter treats pain.

SMITH: Yeah. The beautiful and precious things that they are. I mean, when God gives two jobs in the garden of Eden, right? You know, to work the land and name the animals and it’s about using words. That’s a gift of language. And we need to treat that very, very seriously. And it’s really great that you’re sort of pointing that out to us. And I want to end more or less here because I’ve got maybe a couple of final questions to ask you, with Revelation and Flannery O’Connor because that—first of all, you know, Flannery O’Connor has become sort of the darling of Christian folks in the last 20-30 years.

PRIOR: As she should be.

SMITH: Absolutely. I mean, I’m a big fan. I studied under Marion Montgomery at the University of Georgia who was a very close personal friend of Flannery O’Connor. They were born in the same year. So I would hear Marion Montgomery tell stories about Flannery or Mary Flannery as sometimes they would call her. And so it felt for me, I think it’s wonderful that the world, especially the Christian world, is discovering her. And you picked what I considered to be one of her great stories, which is A Good Man is Hard to Find and Revelation are usually the two that mostly get anthologized. And you focused on Revelation and you said that it’s a great example. It’s a great example of a whole lot of things, but it’s especia– You talk about Revelation in the context of humility. Say more about that.

PRIOR: Well, Ruby Turpin is the main character of Revelation and she is extremely proud of herself and looks down at everyone around her. And the irony in all that is Ruby and her husband are pig farmers. And she literally thinks her pigs don’t stink as she’s looking down her nose at all the people gathered around her in the doctor’s office where the story opens.

SMITH: Well, and that’s a beautiful thing in and of itself based—we all get sick, right? We’re all broken. That opening scene in that doctor’s office is just such an amazingly brilliant way of dramatizing that—

PRIOR: The condition of all of us, right.

SMITH: Absolutely.

PRIOR: And Ruby doesn’t recognize it as many of us don’t. And then by the story’s end, she has a literal revelation in which, because she gets hit in the head, literally, and while she’s in the doctor’s office, and then as she’s recovering, the Lord gives her this vision of all the saints marching into heaven and she sees herself and her husband at the end because the first shall be last and she finally understands this truth and the story closes on that note.

SMITH: Well, that’s right. She finally does. I mean, a lot of Flannery O’Connor short stories are that moment of revelation or moment of grace where—

PRIOR: Epiphany.

SMITH: Yeah, and A Good Man is Hard to Find that moment in the end when the grandmother confronts the misfit and they realized that—she reaches out and says my son, right? Realizes that they really are all the same. I love that you kind of ended the book with that story or almost ended the book with that story and with the idea of humility because it kind of in some ways brings us full circle. If we’re going to approach literature, if we want to be taught, yes, we’ve got to approach it with a certain measure of humility, don’t we?

PRIOR: Absolutely. We’re putting ourselves under the words, the experience, the worldview of someone else. And, as I said before, doing that well requires patience and attention, taking ourselves out of our me-centered universe and sitting at someone else’s feet.

SMITH: Karen Swallow Prior. Thank you for this book. I found it very nourishing and a whole lot of fun. And just keep writing, and I promise you I’ll keep reading.

PRIOR: Thank you. It’s a deal.

SMITH: That brings to a close my conversation with Karen Swallow Prior. We’ve been discussing her latest book On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books.

Earlier this year, I had her on the program to discuss her essay Why I Am an Evangelical, an essay that was in the book, Still Evangelical, published by Intervarsity Press. To hear my interview or Marvin Olasky’s interview with Karen Swallow Prior recorded after her book On Hannah Moore came out, just go to the WORLD News Group website——and type her name into the search engine at the top of the page.

Listening In is brought to you by WORLD News Group and this podcast is just one of the many benefits of WORLD membership. To find out more about becoming a member of WORLD, go to

The technical producer for our program is Rich Roszel. He gets strong technical assistance from Allan Brooks. Our executive producer is Nick Eicher. I’m your host, Warren Smith, and you’ve been Listening In.

(Photo by Sam Dean/Genesis) Karen Swallow Prior 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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