Reading’s Virtues

While waiting for a mechanic to complete my car’s inspection yesterday, I met a young woman reading a book in the waiting area. She had Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a book my wife greatly enjoyed. The young woman said she was a university student, studying viola performance and instruction, and Skloot’s book was something she “had to read for a summer school class.” I corrected her; “Ah — no, you get to read that book.”

I have a very high view of reading. I think it’s a very good use of one’s time, and the takeaways, both internal to reading and external to it, are important on many levels.

Call this exchange at the service station nit-picky or even high-minded, but my response is not without precedent. When I was in my final semester of graduate school at Duke Divinity School, I took a course with James B. Duke English professor David Aers entitled “Catholic and Protestant Virtue and Vice.” The course looked at the allegorical masterwork Piers Plowman by William Langland, a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales, as well as many of the works by John Milton. The course directed us to think about the virtues and vices in both writers’ works and whether there were major challenges and changes in what constitutes or detracts from the virtuous life.

Each class, we specified a portion of text to read and to have ready to discuss, but we were also expected to do our own research on virtues and vices. I was interested in the vice of backbiting and read Thomas Aquinas’ account of this vice in the Summa Theologiae.[1]

During one class, however, a number of students didn’t say much about their outside reading, which elicited from our professor a class-wide accusation of sloth. I objected — “But I’ve read Aquinas for this class today.”

“No,” he responded. “You read Thomas for yourself!”

What I assume my professor meant, and what I implied in my reply to the young lady at the service station, is that we read because there are many good things that take place in the act of reading.

Many goods of reading are external: we read cookbooks to find cake recipes; we read travel guides to find out the best restaurants in the city; we read the newspaper to find out how the General Assembly voted on the recent legislation or how the local football team fared against their historic rival. Each of these takeaways is external to the practice of reading, just as the paycheck is an external takeaway from one’s employment opportunity. Reading Aquinas has the external good that I will find out more about backbiting—how it is a diminution of justice against my neighbor, and, save murder and adultery, backbiting is a most grievous offense, on par with robbery. The external good of reading Skloot’s account of Henrietta Lacks is that the reader will learn about the role the cancer death of an African American female in the 1950s played in the early days of engineering.

These external goods usually have something to do with the genre or title of the book, so that if you are reading a cookbook, you are likely working through recipes and striving for the goods of a delicious red velvet cake. Alasdair MacIntyre calls these “the goods of effectiveness” because they are effects or results of what we perform.[2]

Internal goods may not seem so straightforward. Internal goods often denote the pleasure that comes with performing a practice: the chess player relishes complexity in an opening move; the cook delights in the time needed for a proper pork shoulder to smoke; the losing tennis player shakes the hand of his better opponent, saying with a smile, “Too good!”

MacIntyre calls these takeaways “the goods of excellence” because they denote the virtues needed to perform the task at hand. These virtues include prudence (as in the chess player), patience (as in the cook), and justice (as in the tennis player).

If we think about the internal goods, or the goods of excellence, in reading, we find the same list: prudence to sit in discipline for an hour and read without the computer or the television’s distraction; patience to endure the long monologues to see how the plot and characters will develop; justice to give the author a sympathetic reading with an eye to the historical, cultural, and theological assumptions the author presupposes. These virtues are all integral to the practice of reading well, and they help to form a virtuous life able to perform other actions virtuously too.

Consider an article from The New York Times in 2009, “A Quest to Read a Book a Day for 365 Days.” The reader, Nina Sankovitch, challenged herself to read a book everyday for an entire year. This challenge included holidays, where she admits there were a “few close calls.” To accomplish this feet, she disciplined the patterns of her life around this one objective. She cut out gardening, reading The New Yorker, ambitious cooking, shopping, and coffee with friends. In addition, she watched television only when she folded laundry. A follow-up interview gives a little more insight into Sankovitch’s year of reading:

Typically reading 70 pages an hour, she’d try to finish each book in about four hours. She still did the laundry and carpooling, reading while the boys were in school, percolating at night, posting in the morning.

Her life was ordered to a discipline, perhaps exposing how many frivolous activities and how much wasted time we allow ourselves. More interesting than the challenge of 365 books in an equal number of days are the takeaways from this project. The article states,

Aside from the pleasure of it, Ms. Sankovitch had other goals — inspiring a love of books in others and finding her way through a period of sorrow and soul-searching brought on by the death of her sister Anne-Marie in 2005.

These are external goods, but they give keen insight into what a “good” reader is able to accomplish if she commits herself to the task. These external goods Sankovitch receives are serious and worthy of the time she gives and sacrifices he makes to find them, but the seriousness of her commitment shows something greater. A disciplined reader not only receives pleasure for the action that she already enjoys but also fosters particular virtues that make up a disciplined life.

[1] Aquinas, ST II-II, a. 73. See

[2] See MacIntyre, Alasdair, After Virtue (1981), 190-91.

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