Book Rec: On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior

On Reading Well is the most fruitful impulse purchase of my life. Well, save perhaps for Halo: The Flood.

Karen Swallow Prior’s book is a collection of essays examining how certain books explore various virtues, and I fell in love with it for its virtues:

  1. How deep it goes with both the philosophy and the novels.
  2. How expertly it avoids proselytizing or pearl-clutching.

Plumbing the Depths

Prior demonstrates a deep understanding of both philosophy and the literature on-hand. A rarity in my experience. I have a number of books similar to On Reading Well on my shelves, with titles like:

  • Comic Book Character: Unleashing the Hero in Us All
  • The Halo Effect
  • Halo and Philosophy: Intellect Evolved
  • Halos and Avatars: Playing Games with God
    (…Halo ended up factoring a lot more into this review that I initially thought.)

Each of these books, and more that I have perused shelves or checked out from libraries, use an element of popular culture to explore real-world ideas. [Insert Franchise Here] and Philosophy is a whole series unto itself, and there’s no shortage of Christian literature using whatever thing is dope these days to get hip with the youth, man (nailed it). However, what frequently ends up happening is the reader gets a shallow version of the franchise they love, with the most basic touch points used as a launch point for an unrelated lecture.

Now, to be fair, the people who write these books and essays generally are fans of the material. I think they tend to struggle knowing who their audience is. Are they writing to fellow geeks and therefore can go deeper into the franchise without fear of losing them? Or are they writing to fellow philosophers or Christian parents trying to get hip with the thing their youths love, and so have to stay surface level with the geek material to keep paced? As a blogger, I at least have the ability to post my writing on sites that help define my audience more easily than a mass-published book (Eleven-ThirtyEight is gonna have Star Wars fans, Halo Archive is going to have Halo fans).

Also, to be fair again, there’s another trap that folks who write about this overlap of franchise/big ideas can fall into. It can feel weird talking about something as big, expansive, and important as philosophy or faith through the lens of pop culture. It feels like you have to spend time justifying the comparison, so it’s sometimes easier to avoid diving too deep into the pop culture side of it, to make yourself appear – or at least feel – more credible.

I ran into this issue for all the articles I wrote for Christ and Pop Culture. It got so bad that I had to write two completely different versions of my article on District 9, and as a result, ended up turning in the final draft late. Which also meant that they had to run their issue with a cover image that no longer made sense (guys, I am so so so sorry about that).

And to be a third kind of fair, franchises can screw it up the other way too. If I have to read one more theory on Arbiter Thel ‘Vadam being Sangheili!Jesus because his arms were outstretched that one time in Halo 2, so help me God, I will- Look. Christ figures in fiction are a dime a dozen and 90% of the time it’s a false comparison (Thel’s really got more of a Saul-to-Paul journey anyway, though a friend of mine once made a solid argument for Moses).

Overall my point is: what Karen Swallow Prior does with this book is very hard to do. She makes the both the novels and the philosophy accessible without giving either the short shrift. The closest approximation I’ve seen in my readings is Scientific Mythologies, which is an in-depth study of how science fiction as a whole reflects and shapes philosophy. Unfortunately, Scientific Mythologies leans heavily into the moral panic stance. Fortunately, On Reading Well leans heavily into a celebration of literature, which leads me to its other virtue:

In Moderation

When I originally started this book, I thought I would have to couch my review in a “it’s good, but prepare yourself for some Christian proselytizing/pearl-clutching.” Clearly, Scientific Mythologies had trained me well.

Yes, On Reading Well is very blatantly from a Christian perspective. Prior does not couch that at all. However, it manages to weave the fine line of stating the virtues, treating them as absolute truths, connecting them not only to the novel but also to real world events and choices, without attempting to paint the (white) American church as the victims of secularism.

It also manages to weave that fine fine line in Christian doctrine between grace and works of faith. It explores that dichotomy in a clear and effective manner that would have served me and my fellow Intervarsity students very well in college. A fitting accomplishment for a book whose catchphrase could easily be “everything in moderation.”

As a result, I found this book spoke my language in a way that few theology books have done before. Definitely a reread and most likely a resource for later essays of mine.

I mostly write about science fiction (if the endless Halo refrain didn’t give it away), so if you would like to support further researched essays on that genre, give my Patreon a look! If science fiction isn’t your thing, but you enjoyed this review or perhaps just can’t afford Patreon support at this moment (I’ve been there too), consider buying me a Ko-Fi!


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