How do we learn to live well?
“The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility:
humility is endless.” -T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets
One of the best-selling books of the past year is, Girl, Wash Your Face, in which Christian author Rachel Hollis tells her female audience to “stop believing the lies about who you are.” I am not a fan of these kinds of self-help books; most could be condensed into a magazine-length article without losing one iota of solid content. Furthermore, these popular books often promote some questionable psychology and untenable, self-centered views of reality.
Widely read, Girl, Wash Your Face has dominated the non-fiction best-sellers list for several weeks now. But sadly, Hollis’ advice is woefully inadequate for those who really want to live well: wisely and with humility.
I won’t reiterate the sticky theological pitfalls offered in Girl, Wash Your Face; Alisa Childers has already offered some sound analysis (here) identifying the book’s promotion of an egocentric and universalist worldview (all religions are true-just pick one!).
Rather, I would offer an antidote in the form of Karen Swallow Prior’s new book, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books.
Karen Swallow Prior, an English Professor who has written for the Atlantic, Christianity Today, First Things, and Vox, encourages readers to take up the “great books;” that is, works that have stood the test of time and which give readers a path to the understanding of humanity, reality, and what it means to truly live well.
She does not suggest we read for mere pleasure; many of the books she recommends are certainly delightful, but some, like Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel Silence, are profoundly haunting and challenging. But Prior argues that by reading both promiscuously and thoughtfully, we can learn not what to think, but how to think, and in so doing, live well.
Each chapter explores a ‘great book’ in order to elucidate the nature and application of one of twelve virtues. Readers could easily find a one-sentence definition for each virtue, but Prior argues that thoughtful reading of great literature “invites readers to participate in the experience aesthetically, not merely intellectually.” She notes that such reading is “formative, not merely informative,” and can lead us into a fuller understanding of what it means to actually practice virtues like patience or kindness.
For example, Dr. Prior uses George Saunders’ Tenth of December to teach that the virtue of kindness should not be confused with “niceness.” Rather, the word kindness is related to the word kin, and refers to the way we treat family members. In the shared closeness of a family, there are times when we must speak truth, or “lovingly correct.” But she warns us that real kindness is neither “natural nor nice,” and must inherently link to truth. And she is not referring to postmodern notions of “her truth” or “my truth,” but real truth — painful as it may be.
This is in sharp contrast with books like Girl, Wash Your Face, which, while couched in tough love terminology, actually encourage a kind of relativistic view of truth, and often offer just really bad advice. Whereas Hollis tells her audience to never, ever, give up on your dreams (no matter what), in an exploration of patience, Prior offers a much wiser, mature, and realistic approach to personal dreams:
“Slow down. Don’t be in a hurry. Life is long. Work hard, and the rewards will come. The dreams you have —some of them — will come true; those that don’t will be replaced by others, maybe even better ones.” (Emphasis mine.)
Every chapter of On Reading Well offers a rich and thoughtful analysis of great use to anyone seeking to live well and wisely. The books Prior highlights range from the overtly Christian (Pilgrim’s Progress) to the modern secular (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.) The chapters need not be read in order, and even if one has not read the referenced literature, the explanations help us to discover the nuanced application of each virtue. (Although I think you will want to read every book listed after studying Prior’s explanations).
While not a self-help book per se, I’d suggest readers would derive much greater value from On Reading Well than Girl, Wash Your Face, or much else in the self-help genre for that matter. Prior’s book does seem to be gaining traction, and I’m hopeful that more leaders and educators will return to the great books as a tool for developing character, understanding, and wisdom. Prior appropriately ends her book with an exploration of the virtue of humility, for, as she quotes Flannery O’Connor:
“To know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around. The first product of self-knowledge is humility.”
Prior concludes with this profound sentence: “The good life begins and ends with humility.” Indeed. Read well, and live well.
*Although I am connected to Karen Swallow Prior on social media, I did not seek her approval to contrast her approach with that of Rachel Hollis. If this comparison gives offense, the blame is mine alone.