The Virtues Of Reading: On Reading Well
Recently I went with my older son to see the documentary about Fred Rogers entitled Won't You Be My Neighbor? It was like no other film I have seen in a long time in that one could hear, at different points during the movie, people crying. Then, as the credits began to roll, everyone applauded. As we sat there listening to the theme song to Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, everyone sang along. When we finally filed out of the theater, people were either silent or lamenting that we needed more people in the world like Fred Rogers. What was it that everyone who has seen this film seen in Fred Rogers? Why are they just now appreciating the virtues he proclaimed when so many made fun of them while he was alive and still doing his show? I remember hearing people scoff at his gentleness, his kindness, at his show which they thought slow and antiquated. Yet now people are embracing this documentary and the very ideals that Fred Rogers espoused.
The philosophers Aristotle and Plato regarded temperance, wisdom, justice, and courage as the most important of virtues for a person to have. The Church would extend these to the seven virtues: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility. They were meant to give meaning and purpose to a person's life, to form and shape the content of one's character, and give expression to our souls. Many in modern culture have long since shaken off (in their minds) these religious and outdated modes of thought for a "live and let live" approach. They have connected virtue as something akin to Puritanism, something else that they don't fully understand but has used as a label for anything that smacks of judging and correcting another with a holier-than-thou attitude. Virtues are things which kill the fun and ruin a good time. Virtues, unlike so much in our culture, is not fluid. I think most in society today would agree with Sigmund Freud when he wrote in The Interpretation of Dreams, "The virtuous man contents himself with dreaming that which the wicked man does in actual life."
People even wondered if Fred Rogers really could be as nice and virtuous as Mister Rogers on television? Was he really like that or was that just a persona for his program? There were urban legends that he had been a sniper in the Vietnam War or that he had tattoos and that's why he wore those cardigan sweaters to cover them are just two of them. This said more about ourselves than it did him. But why are we so distrustful of virtues? Why do we not want someone to be good or kind or true? Why do so many secretly hope these things don't really exist? Is it because we are afraid to measure ourselves by such virtuousness? Do we prefer people to not be what they seem when they appear good and moral? Do we secretly rejoice in the fall of such a person because it means we aren't so bad after all?
And, yet, we long for it to be true. Is that why so many are thronging to see a documentary about Fred Rogers? In this culture were cruelty, verbal abuse on social media, where division and arrogance fill our media, where celebrities fall with the latest gossip of their misdoings, where indifference, cynicism, and sarcasm are the modus operandi. How can we not long for compassion, kindness, gentleness, wisdom, justice, and courage?
John Henry Newman wrote, "Virtue is its own reward, and brings with it the truest and highest pleasure; but if we cultivate it for only pleasure's sake, we are selfish, not religious, and will never gain the pleasure, because we can never have the virtue." How many would think this statement as antiquated and out-of-date? How many would dismiss this and say that one seeks pleasure for pleasure's sake and to seek out virtue would only inhibit living out the pleasures of the good life (good here not relating to any moral sense by only in terms of lavishness and fulfilling one's appetites, even to excess. Good as in getting and having it all: i.e. consumption, materialism).
In On Reading Well, while discussing The Great Gatsby, Karen Swallow Prior writes, "Temprian is derived from the Latin temperare, which means to 'observe proper measure, be moderate, restrain oneself' or 'to mix correctly, mix in due proportion; regulate, rule, govern, manage'." There are those who would balk at the mere suggestion of this. Some would stiffen their backs and angrily declare, "How dare you tell me what to do!" And do so under the guise of personal happiness. Yet Aristotle would correct them with, "...happiness does not consist in amusement. In fact, it would be strange if our end were amusement, and if we were to labor and suffer hardships all our life long merely to amuse ourselves.... The happy life is regarded as a life in conformity with virtue. It is a life which involves effort and is not spent in amusement...."
What On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior has done for me, as a lifelong reader, is to make me reevaluate how I read books? It's true, as a child, I often learned from books what virtues like courage were from reading about Lucy Pevensie in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe or about friendship and courage from Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings or Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. I discovered sacrifice from those books, as well as from Charlotte's Web. Generosity and unconditional love was something I gathered from Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree. Friendship, which I'd mentioned with Lord of the Rings, was a value that I had noticed first in the Frog and Toad series. Jane Eyre taught me that staying true to one's moral character often means sacrificing personal happiness. When Mr. Rochester tells her, "Jane, be still; don't struggle so like a wild, frantic bird, that is rending its own plumage in its desperation," she replies, "I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being, with an independent will; which I will now exert to leave you."
But do we continue to be instructed by the stories we read as adults or do we dismiss fiction as simply that?
Do we view novels as pure entertainment?
Or do we give literature the time it requires so that we might read more deeply?
This requires another word that is very unpopular these days: discipline. Just as an artist must learn the discipline of working on their craft daily to improve their art, so, too, must the reader learn the discipline of spending time reading the words on the page, thinking and processing what's being written, and asking of oneself to not just appreciate those words, character development, the arc of the story, and its final outcome, but to allow the work to shape and form our own character. This goes beyond mere reading for entertainment's sake, though one can be entertained while gathering into oneself the beauty of the language and phrasing, as well as meditating upon the choices (good and bad) that a character makes and the impact those decisions cost themselves and others. Dickens' work is incredible for watching the ramification of one's choices and how choices determine one's character.
In her previous work, Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, Prior wrote, "Books have formed the soul of me. I know that spiritual formation is of God, but I also know—mainly because I learned it from books—that there are other kinds of formation, too, everyday gifts, and that God uses the things of this earth to teach us and shape us, and to help us find truth." This is not hyperbole. I completely understand what she means and continues with in On Reading Well. Books can shape and form us, impact our souls, and instruct us through story on virtues. While I will not discuss all of the books Prior uses as examples, I will write about the Jane Austen novel that she uses and which is my favorite above all Austen's glorious works: Persuasion.
While Pride and Prejudice is the Austen novel I've read the most, Persuasion is the one that I love the most. And yet it is also one of her saddest novels.
The word persuasion is derived from the Latin word that means "advising" or "urging" (recommending). It is a title that Jane Austen's brother gave to her last published novel because it deals with the ramifications of the persuasion of the protagonist, Anne Elliot, by her godmother Lady Russell, not to marry Frederick Wentworth, who was a young naval officer at that time. It is a decision Anne will deeply regret.
Unlike Emma Woodhouse or Lizzie Bennet, Anne is a quiet, more reserved and introverted character. She does not sparkle and shine, nor is a great wit. Instead, Anne Elliot is a more subtle and self-reliant figure.
Yet it is within the character of Captain Wentworth that we will see the virtue of patience or steadfastness. Despite Anne's rejection, he never loses his love or affection for Anne. In his work The Western Canon, Harold Bloom writes of how Anne and Captain Wentworth (unlike Austen's other male and female romances) seldom speak to each other. Yet the "kind of communication in Persuasion depends upon deep 'affection,' a word that Austen values over 'love.' 'Affection' between woman and man, in Austen, is more profound and lasting emotion."
It is this affection for each other that remains silent and steadfast between Anne and Captain Wentworth. This silent affection keeps them apart and, finally, brings them back together. Yet it is the time that they remain apart that give this novel its sense of melancholy and loss. Despite their ending up together, the reader still feels that sadness. It is a wondering of what might have been. But until that moment of a coming together, we share in Anne's anxiety as to what Captain Wentworth's intentions are with his return. This novel has an inwardness that is far more acute and complex than any of Austen's other novels or other heroines.
One can feel both Captain Wentworth's fears and his deep love for Anne, that has never wavered, when he writes an impassioned letter to her:
I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in F. W.
This is steadfast and patient love that is being displayed. Captain Wentworth is a clear descendent in his moral, steadfast character in much the same manner as the honorable Colonel Brandon in Austen's Sense and Sensibility. "Never inconstant" and "undeviating." These are not the words of someone who is seeking instant gratification. This is a man who has loved and continues to love faithfully the same woman who rejected him. How many of us would have remained so true? There is a constancy in their characters, in their moral fiber that many today would find foolish and tell them, "Move on. Find someone else." We live in a time when love is thought fleeting and is to be enjoyed only so long as it feels good. When a relationship gets difficult, then many decide that they have "fallen out of love," as if love were inconstant. While some may repeat 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 in their wedding vows, how many truly see that as an everlasting covenant anymore? "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in truth. It always protects, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails . . ." Those are nice sentiments, but highly unrealistic, some might say. Why? Because this is a love that is sacrificial and puts the other first. One sees the "love is patient" within the characters of Anne and Captain Wentworth. They teach us, within Austen's novel, what that really can look like. These are the most morally mature characters Austen has written. Jane Austen even described Anne as being "almost too good for me." Long-suffering, both Anne and Captain Wentworth remain true to the one that they love.
When I read Persuasion, do I evaluate my own idea of love and patience? Do I look to see how true I am within my own relationship with my wife?
Of Anne and Captain Wentworth, Austen writes, "There could have been no two hearts so open, so tastes similar, no feelings so in unison." Isn't that a lovely ideal to be said of a couple? Is it not something to strive and work towards?
At the end of On Reading Well, Prior offers us questions to ask as we read these novels. In regards to Persuasion, she suggests five that we can think about so that we can delve more deeply into Austen's masterpiece.
1. How does the history of the word patience and its various applications help us better understand it as a virtue?
2. What beyond waiting, are the necessary components of the virtue of patience?
3. How are situations from the mundane to the excruciating similar in requiring patience? How are they different?
4. In what ways does Anne Elliot's behavior exhibit the virtue of patience?
5. How does the form of Persuasion help the reader to practice patience?
This is why we should read, in order that we, by thinking more thoroughly about a work, we can reflect not only upon the nature and choices of a character but of our own, not only in this circumstances but within those we face daily. How can we begin to form the habit of patience and exhibit it towards those we love and those we have a difficult time not only loving but liking? How can we, ourselves, be patient and steadfast?
What makes a work a "classic" or "great literature" is, as Italo Calvino states, " . . . a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers." But we must allow, by taking the time to truly read such a classic, it to offer up what it has to say and let ourselves be shaped into people who exhibit such virtues as courage, patience, diligence, wisdom, kindness, humility, and charity. And we need books like On Reading Well to remind us again of why stories have power and our engagement with them can have such lasting impact on our daily lives. In this or any age, On Reading Well is a much-needed work.