Good Women; Good Books

I am sitting at my desk looking at two newish books by women I greatly admire, Karen Swallow Prior and my former sister-in-law, Shirley Raines. Both books are non-fiction and each woman has spent a notable career in education.

Shirley’s book (An Uncommon Journey: Leadership Lessons from a School Teacher Who Became a University President), is one of 15 or so she’s written. It is a memoir of sorts about a West Tennessee farm girl who went on to become president of the University of Memphis (which is about the same size as Virginia Tech, if you need a comparison). She and my brother, Sandy, met in college and married, producing a son (who produced grandkids). They later divorced.

(Note: While president at UM, Shirley, operating without an athletic director, hired Justin Fuentes as football coach. He coaches at Virginia Tech now and was arguably the best football coach in Memphis’ history.)

Shirley’s book is rarely personal, but is, indeed, instructional, getting to her point that she is a woman who took advantage of opportunities, studied, worked, schmoozed and learned how to be the leader everybody else looked (and still looks) up to. It is a solid read for women–and men–seeking inspiration as they move up the professional ladder.

My friend Karen’s latest book, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books, has been roundly adored by reviewers and a wave of readers who love books–as Karen does. She is a professor of English at Liberty University and perhaps that university’s most admired individual, though hardly its best known (Jerry Falwell Sr. and Jr. would fill that role). Karen’s even-tempered, thoughtful and kind analysis of any situation makes her an intellectual favorite of people on my side of the political fence–one whose philosophy she generally does not share.

Within these 250 or so pages, Karen talks about how great literature helps shape those who read it, “exploring twelve virtues that philosophers and theologians throughout history have identified as most essential for good character and the good life.” The central focus here is obviously of great importance to Karen, who earlier wrote the wonderful Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, a memoir in books, which she calls “a love story.”

On Reading Well is a book about reading books and if that doesn’t grab you by the ears, then simply open the it to any page and start reading. It’s hard to put down this little jewel, which gives you all the excuses you’ll need for being diverted by whatever book is in your hands at the moment.

Karen, who was hit by a bus in Nashville last year shortly after On Reading Well came out, is one of our teachers this year at the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference. The title of her class: “I Thought I Understood Virtue Because I Wrote a Book About It; Then I Got Hit by a Bus.” Register and get info here.

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