For more than 35 years we have run this little bookstore here in south central Pennsylvania. Some of our business is – as most readers of BookNotes know – on-line and mail order. We appeal to those who hate the porno dealing and union busting and market-skewing and facelessness of Amazon and other big box retailers that spew out data but not necessarily wisdom, who are driven by algorithms and greed and growth. Anyway, we are grateful for our on-line conversations and the opportunity to hand-wrap and mail books to real customers who sometimes become real friends. Shout out to Hillary who sent us a Rosh Hashana cake the other day.
Much of our business, though, is centered in our real bricks and mortar store here in Dallastown. We like our small town and we love our central PA roots. We are grateful that customers drive here from Philly, from Harrisburg, from Baltimore, from Chambersburg (and, sometimes, from New York and central Virginia and Pittsburgh.) Kudos to the great Washington area gang and all our friends from various CCO campuses who sometimes bring students here. But, most days, it’s just us local (but rarely ordinary) folks from York County. We are glad to serve our friends here in the geography of home.
This coming Friday evening, September 14th, will be, we hope, a lovely convergence of some out of town fans and some local friends who are all showing up to hear Karen Swallow Prior share about her brand new book On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books (Brazos Press; $19.99.) She’ll start her talk here at 7:00 PM and be with us for a few hours. I can hardly contain myself telling you why hosting Karen is so very great for us. We pray she has a good time, but we know we sure will! Beth and I and our staff here are thrilled to have her help us understand better what we do. That is, she is going to remind us about the life-changing, culture-reforming, God-honoring, faith-building, power of books and literature. As you can tell from the title and subtitle of her book, Dr. Prior’s thesis is simple but profound: reading good books can help us live well. Great novels, particularly, can help cultivate our character. On Reading Well is as much about character formation, virtue theory, and the nurturing of our interior lives as it is about literature.
I will review On Reading Well (and a few other books about books that have released this week) in the next BookNotes in a day or so. For now, I want to do two or three quick things and get this newsletter sent into your inboxes.
SPREAD THE WORD – COME IF YOU CAN
Firstly, please consider sharing this with anybody you may know in the mid-Atlantic region who wants to spend a couple of hours in an intimate setting with Dr. Karen Prior. You may know she is much in demand, writes often for publications as diverse as the Atlantic and First Things, Christianity Today, and Vox. Not too many literature profs get to write for The Washington Post and the Gospel Coalition, but that’s Karen. She is a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (did you see that review I did in the last BookNotes of The Dignity Revolution by Daniel Darling? She is a colleague of his (and his boss Russell Moore) in that thoughtful, evangelical movement which offers faithful public theology for the common good.) She is known for her own memoir Booked and the one-of-a-kind biography of the Victorian-era British abolitionist, great moral activist and novelist Hannah More, Fierce Convictions. She has brought together pro-choice and pro-life folks to talk about common ground and she serves as an evangelical voice within the Humane Society which works (as did Wilberforce and Hannah More) for animal welfare. She teaches lit at Liberty University which makes her that much more interesting to some. That the ecumenical Brazos Press published this book (in hardback, no less) illustrates how important it is and Prior’s own reputation as a significant voice within the broader faith community.The da
So, she’s a live-wire, rock-solid, scholar and important leader within the evangelical world and beyond. If you want to attend, you might be advised to come a bit early; it could be crowded. It’s going to be a great night of conversation (and refreshments) about faith, culture, books, and, well, more books. There are hotels about 4 miles away near the South Queen Street exit of Route 83 and it might be fun to visit our area here if you can.
The day after our event, Dr. Prior will be doing another event in Lancaster (less than an hour away) on Saturday evening. Learn about the “book launch party” with Prior and see the artwork in On Reading Well done by Square Halo Gallery curator and Lancaster printmaker Ned Bustard HERE. Ned and his wife Leslie are dear friends and big supporters of our work here on this side of the Susquehanna River and we are happy they are hosting Karen (and showing off the original pieces for the book) on Saturday at the downtown Lancaster Gallery. Spread the word!
SIGNED BOOKS MAKE GREAT GIFTS
Secondly, we wanted to announce to you (as we sometimes do) that even if you can’t be with us here in the shop on Friday night, we can get Karen to autograph books for you. If you’d like a signed copy, just let us know and we can get one (or more) signed and send it out on Monday.
If you want to give one as a gift to someone (thinking ahead for Christmas, maybe?) she can inscribe On Reading Well to someone special. Again, just give us the details and we’ll have her do that for you. We can send the signed books to you or we can gift-wrap and send them out to your recipient. Just let us know how we can help.
On Reading Well is a fairly serious book and (as we’ve described before and will explore more in the next BookNotes) she links a classic virtue with a certain novel — temperance can be learned from Gatsby, justice is seen in Tale of Two Cities, humility emerges from two pieces by Flannery O’Connor. One doesn’t have to have read the books in this collection to appreciate it. She explains the stories and highlights the characters in ways that makes us hunger for a more morally consistent life, for cardinal virtues, Christian virtues, heavenly virtues. This is meaty, important stuff, for sure.
ENJOY THIS OP-ED PIECE WRITTEN FOR OUR LOCAL PAPER
Which brings me to our third reason for sending out this BookNotes today: I wanted you to see an op-ed piece I wrote for the local newspaper. It may or may not get published, but we wanted to share with you this little rumination on the need for character formation and how reading books can help (as Jamie Smith puts it in You Are What You Love) “conscript us into a better story.”
Reading novels are clearly not the only things that shapes us, but there is something potent about the slower, careful attention one must pay to a good book – in contrast to the speedy, visceral impact of film and music and advertising.) If you’ve read anything like Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death or Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by the eloquent Marilyn McEntyre or Reading for the Common Good by Englewood Review’s C. Christopher Smith or The Pleasures of Reading in a Distracted Age by Alan Jacobs, you know how fascinating this whole topic of how books work and why they matter can be. Prior’s project is less sociological about the role of reading, generally, but offers up specific studies of Christian character formation by imbibing the virtues found in classic literature.
I hope you enjoy this little essay and hope it shows you how we promote this evangelical project within a public setting. Maybe it will inspire you to order her book or – who knows – venture to Dallastown or Lancaster this weekend. Happy reading.
CAN READING GOOD BOOKS CREATE GOOD CHARACTER?
Author Karen Swallow Prior to speak at Hearts & Minds this Friday, September 14, 2018 7:00 PM 234 East Main Street Dallastown, PA 17313
From the debates about Colin Kaepernick to the confirmation hearings of Brent Kavanaugh, from the routine accusations made against the President to the tragic failures of the Catholic church, this week has been a particularly vivid example of what is true of all weeks: from the most newsworthy leaders and celebrities to our favorite local heroes and normal neighbors, questions of character loom large. Our deepest values and virtues are embodied in a million choices people make day by day by day; we may talk in lofty language about what we claim we believe but our daily choices reveal what we most love and show off our truest selves. This is true of government officials, business leaders, and, of course, each and every one of us; you and me, every day.
This is seen in slogans we offer and truisms we live by. Whether it’s “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” or “blessed are the peacemakers”, “one day at a time” or “go big or go home”, so many of our cultural sayings capture our imaginations, conscripting us into stories about the meaning of what really matters, how we understand the good life, and what kind of people we want to be.
Although the shaping of our deepest loves and the imaginative constructs of how we live into what we think matters most is complicated, much of this meaning-making and way-finding comes from what classic thinkers have called character. That is, we reveal who we really are and what we most deeply believe when (especially under pressure) our choices become instinctual.
“I didn’t stop to think about it,” the heroic firefighter says as she tells of dashing into a burning building to save a child; it just came natural to her. That is, what she did flowed from who she is. Of course, she had been trained to do this. Naturally, she was trained in fire-fighting skills, but more, she developed character traits and dispositions to willingly put herself in harm’s way, to save lives. Her brave behavior didn’t happen just because of an idea or a skill-set; she was a person of character, of certain virtue. Wanting to do the right thing had become natural.
Few of us have consistently well-formed characters and it seems to be the human condition to walk around with values higher than we are able to live. Still, in one way or another, we are being formed to become people to live lives that are consistent with our deepest values, or not. We are trained in making choices and our interior lives inform those choices, revealing our deepest character.
We become courageous whistle-blowers or those who are complicit in injustice, we become people who cheat on our taxes, or those for whom such a thought wouldn’t cross their minds. We cheat on our spouses or we resist temptations. We talk endlessly about our achievements or we humbly listen to others. We get involved in civic life for the sake of the common good or we look out for number one. We complain about everything or we live with grace and gratitude.
Who nurtures our values? What institutions inform our deepest convictions? Where does one go in order to – as the Bible puts it – get “trained in righteousness”? Why do some people show forth consistent, coherent lives of virtue and others seem so morally shabby? And, importantly, how can we become more like the good people that we admire?
Literature professor Karen Swallow Prior maintains that one resource for the development of virtue, a school for character formation, if you will, is to be found in the reading of great books. She is not new in making this case but she is one of the most recent teachers to remind us of what the best thinkers in Western history – starting with the ancient Greeks – have long said. Stories allow us to inhabit a world of choices and we emerge from those worlds in one way or another shaped, influenced, formed. For better or worse our worldview and ethics, our virtue and character, are nurtured by the storytellers, the artists, the filmmakers, the poets. In her brand new book On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books, Prior makes this case by offering a virtue-based reading of a dozen great classics. By looking at Mark Twain’s Huck Finn and Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, Shusaku Endo’s Silence and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, by reflecting on justice in A Tale of Two Cities and patience in Austen’s Persuasion (and so much more) Dr. Prior helps readers not only learn to understand and love great literature but to live life well.
With media pundits and Hollywood film makers and public school teachers and our preachers and social media friends all vying for our attention, it is no wonder many of us feel fragmented, restless, confused about what we believe, let alone how best to live well. Great books endure for a reason, and Ms. Prior helps us realize that profound reading can yield deeper, more thoughtful, and more virtuous lives.
Join us at the Hearts & Minds Bookstore in Dallastown this Friday, September 14th at 7:00 PM for a very special evening with Karen Swallow Prior discussing her new book, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books. The program is free and open to the public.
You may not be called upon to save a life in a moment’s notice and your behaviors may not be examined in public by a Senate committee. More likely you live your days consumed by more mundane matters, but we all must, to borrow a phrase from author Steve Garber, weave together belief and behavior, creating a fabric of faithfulness. What do we really love? Who do we want to be? What virtues form our character? Great books can inspire us and help us grapple with such big questions. Karen Swallow Prior will be a delightful, helpful guide. Join us.
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