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Of Lists and Definitions and Bookish Abstractions

January 17, 2011

Lately, I’ve been mulling over the concept of being well-read. So far, I have kept this to myself; I have also checked out and flipped through a variety of topical books over the past couple of months without mentioning them in my Library Loot posts. But now that I am in the middle of Barbara Sicherman’s Well-Read Lives and waiting for Clifton Fadiman’s The New Lifetime Reading Plan to arrive via interlibrary loan, it seems like as good a time as any to start a discussion. Start being the keyword: there shall definitely be follow-up posts!

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Back in December, a list started floating around the blogosphere of one hundred titles apparently from the BBC site. The list I actually found at the BBC was different, though, so I shall direct you to Trisha’s post if you haven’t seen it yet. While I never actually blogged about the list, I couldn’t resist counting how many books from it I had read. I arrived at seventy, plus at least half of three more (did I ever tell you about my abortive attempt to read Watership Down last year? OMG, why were all the main characters boy rabbits?! And why were the female rabbits portrayed so ridiculously?!), and I’d guess maybe a fourth or fifth of Shakespeare’s complete works (I went through a phase in high school during which I read quite a few of his comedies and tragedies, but I’ve yet to touch his histories or his poetry). Then the New York Times published its notable books of 2010 list, and I discovered I’ve only read four: one fiction (Angelology) and three nonfiction (Country Driving, Changing My Mind, The Possessed). This got me curious about lists, and I looked up a few differently themed ‘top 100s’: on average, I’d read around forty of the books each one mentioned. I didn’t find any of these lists particularly convincing, though, and thus I began thinking about the larger issue involved: being well-read.

Merriam-Webster defines well-read as:

well-informed or deeply versed through reading 

Perhaps more enlightening are the offered synonyms:

erudite, knowledgeable, learned, lettered, literate, scholarly

and antonyms:

benighted, dark, ignorant, illiterate, uneducated, unlearned, unlettered, unscholarly 

Benighted indeed! The problem with the dictionary definition is that it doesn’t really clarify things. Well-informed about what, precisely? Historically speaking, the Canon was the criterion of being well-read: one either was familiar with the ancients or not. Of course, the Canon changed over time, but it still had a relatively narrow (white, male) viewpoint. Nowadays, while there are still classes and professors and readers who focus on the canon, we’ve also expanded our definitions of literary and classic and canon-worthy to include books from a much wider range. And so many books are being printed, both just-published and reissued ones, that a reader faces almost limitless choices.

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Of course, as an amateur reader, there’s no outside need for me to become well-read. Neither my degree nor my career options rest depend on my literary background. But I’ve always been an intellectual at heart, and I bring that to my hobbies. While I don’t speak for all bloggers, I suspect there are many out there who are also interested in becoming well-read. Isn’t that why we make lists and join challenges? I want to read good books, and I want to read them well. But most of all, I’ve been thinking about this because it’s such a fun topic! ;)

I also suspect we each have our private ideas of what being well-read entails. I know that I prioritise from those limitless choices based on my own goals: I want to read widely in both the geographic and temporal sense. I also would like to have a good knowledge of the mystery and fantasy genres. But do these interests necessarily mean I’m on the path to a ‘well-read’ state? I’m not sure; my thoughts around the concept are still hazy and unformed. I am sure that my interest in being well-read is a private one; I want to be so in order to have richer reading experiences, not to impress others. But I am intrigued by whether the adjective still has meaning in our twenty-first century. I’m also curious as to whether it’s something one can truly achieve, now that we’re aware of so many different cultures, each with their own ‘great books,’ aware of previously neglected authors who now seem important, aware of our ‘smallness’ in the world. I don’t have any answers, or even a definition of what being well-read means to me, but it’s become a bit of a personal project to figure one out.

Hence why I’m posting despite my lack of strong opinions. I want to know what y’all think! So, what does being well-read mean to you? Is it something you strive for? Why or why not? Or do you already consider yourself well-read? Any books you’d recommend on the topic?

60 Comments leave one →
  1. January 17, 2011 7:08 am

    I have looked at some of those 100 books and 200 books and (?) even 1000 books lists. The trouble it that they get my competitive-achievement juices flowing and I want to check off books — and more books. Fortunately before I get into such a project I begin to realize that at least come of the books reflect the prejudices of the selector, so why should I subject myself to that. I went to college and took English courses when the dead white were the canon. We read Smollett and Dickens (somewhat grudgingly because he was too much fun) and Mathew Arnold, but never talked about Gaskell or Austin or George Eliot. European literature did not exist.

    So I have had a lot of fun ever since, catching up. To me, being well read can be either deep or wide. You can explore a subject or an author right down to the bottom and this can be very satisfying if the subject or author seem worth the effort to you. Or you can skitter around from here to there, knowing a little bit about a lot of things. Nothing wrong with that, especially as you begin to make connections among all those seemingly unrelated things.

  2. January 17, 2011 7:17 am

    That’s really interesting Eva. I think it really depends on your educational and geographical backgrounds. For example, most of my schooling was Western so my Canon would be the usual lists taught in English and American schools so I feel I need to read most of the European/American greats. But then my background is Asian so I have an interest in that and make a point of reading Sri Lankan and Japanese books. It’s only since I started blogging that I’ve come across such diverse lists and recommendations that I now feel I’ve only dipped my toe into the ocean. I know nothing about African, Australian, South American, most European (apart from maybe French) and a lot of Asian literature. And you are right, the bias is definitely towards Western male literature and I’m becoming more interested in literature by women. What I love though is that my ideas about what is Canon keeps evolving and although there are some titles that will always remain on my list of books I need to read (such as Dante’s The Divine Comedy or Milton’s Paradise Lost), my priorities keep changing.

  3. January 17, 2011 7:22 am

    I have never made an effort to be well read or a well-rounded reader. It just seems to have come with age. Or perhaps from one of these : (1) Decades of being an eclectic reader, (2) having grown up before there was much (any?) in the way of YA books, (3) having gone to junior high and high school where we read classics and Shakespeare and mythology, (4) having grown up in a house of voracious readers with no reading restrictions or censorship. Oh, and I guess being an editor of the types of books I edit also helps.

    Frankly, I’m often shocked by two things: how many books on the 100 books lists I’ve read. The ones I haven’t read are usually conscious decisions, not lapses in my background (I don’t like the genre; read something else by the author and didn’t like it; don’t like the topic). And the other thing is how few of the classics young people have read. I guess the teaching curriculum or the advent of YA books has meant that younger generations are not reading the books we old folks read in our teens and twenties.

    But back to your questions: I am fairly well read, although I know I’ve missed some great ones. No, I have made no effort to be well read — I just keep reading and read pretty much all genres. Age is a great advantage–the more years you’ve had to read the more well read you become, kind of my default.

    • January 17, 2011 9:31 am

      Oh gosh, I think I came off sounding rather snooty. All I’m trying to say is that I think if you read a lot and live long enough then you eventually get around to reading a little bit of everything, which in my mind is being well read. My other point is that some of us were lucky enough (if you want to call it luck) to have read many of the classics in school — whether we wanted to or not.

  4. Joan Kyler permalink
    January 17, 2011 7:25 am

    I do strive to be well-read. I want to know what books changed the world or presented new ideas. I want to read books that are beautifully written, that take me off into other times and places. I want to know what the lives of other people are like without having the entanglements of real life. I want to keep my finger on the pulse of current entertainment and thought (to some degree, although my ‘dead authors’ rule of thumb has served me well). A good friend who graduated from Swarthmore and Harvard gave me one of the few compliments I savor when he told me that I had read more widely than anyone he knew.
    Many years ago, I discovered Clifton Fadiman’s ‘Lifetime Reading Plan’. I was so excited to find someone who was excited as I was about ‘good’ books that I wrote to him. That dear, sweet man took the time to write back! He was enthusiastic and encouraging and appreciated my thanks. It’s a letter I treasure.
    As I age, I find that my curiosity and enthusiasm has waned. Life takes a toll. These days, I find myself immersed in escapist literature, mostly mysteries. When I read posts like yours, Eva, I’m reinvigorated and want to grab my Shakespeare or Montaigne, my Dickens or Hawthorne.

  5. January 17, 2011 7:29 am

    I always feel like the bottom of the class with this one. Everytime I take the list I always have the least amount. I don’t always enjoy the books on the lists provided. I wasn’t brought up reading the classics like my peers and have returned to them in later life. I try not to dwell on my reading status too much though. I am what I am.

  6. January 17, 2011 7:32 am

    As Sakura has touched upon, the term well-read is subjective and dependent on background. I think that the term itself connotes certain things and needs clarification: well-read in classical canon or wider or of books in translation or in one’s chosen field (if applicable) or in one’s area of preferred reading.

    I consider myself fairly well-read but I have a literature background and a number of the above reads, for example (I’ve read 72), were required texts. However, by no means have I read nearly as much as I want do; moreover I do not read to impress but for enjoyment & education (I crave knowledge and love to learn through fiction).

    Once I have read all of the Guardian 1000 Novels I must read before I die (the ones I want to read – some of the 1000 hold no interest for me) then I may feel a sense of achievement & relief that I have managed through a number of books that have been on my shelves for years but it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop reading! For me, one can never be well-read enough.

  7. January 17, 2011 7:44 am

    Eva, you are the undisputed Queen of the ‘reading issue’ post, really you are! I confess that for a literary professor, I am not what is classically understood as well-read. I’ve never read Milton, or Chaucer, or the Bible, or Dante, or the Romantic poets, or much Shakespeare. When I look at the 100 best lists, I’ve rarely read more than 20 or so. But I have spent my whole life dedicated to reading books!

    Most of my focus has been on European literature, French in particular, which hardly comes up on anyone’s lists although much of it is fascinating and provocative. Then I love reading contemporary novels, but don’t have a great taste for the older canonical works. And it’s always seemed to me vital to read books because I am curious about them or love what they’re doing, rather than the fact that a lot of other people have read them.

    For me, I’d rather read well than be well read. By which I mean I’d rather read less, read more deeply, more thoughtfully, and get as much as I can out of the books I read – whether that’s pleasure or provocation or ideas or catharsis. There’s a quote I love which says that the proof of a book is whether you live more deeply for having read it, and that’s the sort of maxim I really adhere to.

  8. January 17, 2011 8:09 am

    Well, if you’re not well read, I don’t know who is! For me, being well read means reading books on a variety of topics from a variety of viewpoints and exploring genres and authors. I also think it’s a personal experience that is different for everyone. For the record, I do not consider myself to be well read.

  9. January 17, 2011 8:13 am

    Being well-read to me means reading widely. I reject the label of “classics”, I have to say—as you rightfully put it, it’s a signifier applied to works by old white dudes. (This isn’t to say that aren’t older works I think I ought to read, but it’s also to say that I don’t like being told what is and isn’t a classic. To quote the Dude, “That’s, just, like, your opinion, man.”) And, of course, each culture has a different canon, which we ought to explore. Good post, Eva.

    (You didn’t like Watership Down? I don’t know if you read enough to encounter her, but Hyzenthlay has a pretty respectable role, if you’d ever want to try again.)

    • January 17, 2011 11:40 am

      LOL – I just watched The Big Lebowski yesterday! As for Watership Down, it took too long for the females to show up, I think. I am glad I read it but must say it was rather odd.

  10. January 17, 2011 8:18 am

    This is a question I’ve been thinking about a great deal lately. I’ve always been an obsessed reader, but recently I have felt the call to read classics and read them chronologically in order to understand the contexts in which they were written. As I try to understand why I have this desire now to fill in all the big books of the Western canon, I’m at something of a loss. I can tell you all the political problems of committing to this kind of project. But nevertheless, the call of great literature sounds through. And I know that the classics I read even twenty years ago have stuck with me, resonated, in ways that very few other books have. Perhaps books which have shown they can c0ntinue to be meaningful for generations have more promise to be meaningful for an individual reader across his or her life?

  11. January 17, 2011 8:22 am

    By the way, my project (and even its title) were inspired by Fadiman’s book. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I have heard others say they felt he was preaching, but I found that he wrote in a personal quirky style showing all his passion for books.

  12. January 17, 2011 8:22 am

    I believe that when I started my whole project and blog I was doing it with the intentions of becoming “well-read.” Now, the further I get into it, the more I realize how gapping the holes in my education are AND how even 70 new classics in, I still don’t feel “well-read.”

    Just because I have read all of these classics, and have a huge list still to get through, doesn’t mean that I am any more well-read than someone else who reads a great deal. I am revising my own definition. Now that I am realizing how much more is out there beyond that little list of 250 classics I made, I am realizing that my quest to earn that title will never end. So for me, bring well-read now means that I am actively and constantly reading new things in a quest for my own personal knowledge and gain. No one else should ever be able to tell me that I am not pursuing that.

    I know that even when I finish my challenge I am going to be seeking out classics and continuing to read things to further myself and my goals. I think that anyone who is continuously seeking out new literature and broadening their reading horizons is deserving of that!

    I’m curious to see what everyone else makes of this post! Excellent topic for discussion!

  13. January 17, 2011 8:59 am

    “Well-read” is quite the slippery slope isn’t it? My first inclination for myself, is to read more classics to become “well-read.” This probably ties directly back to my academic experiences as an English scholar. However, that side of me also knows that it’s a very limited view of well-read. I think reading widely in the international sense, among the genders and various ethnicities is very important. As I’ve been reading Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life, I’m craving more classics. I do consistently fall back on them to become my own version of well-read. There are just so darn many I haven’t gotten around to, and at this rate I might not! I will be posting some pieces from that essay soon, and I might continue this conversation on my own blog.

    Thanks for the food for thought, Eva!

  14. January 17, 2011 9:09 am

    As you said that there no one meaning to the term. For me, it means reading something about every country and all cultures. Lately I even feel the need all the fantastic literature that my country (India) has produced in it’s numerous language. But obviously that could not be everyone’s definition. For me reading all the English classics is not a big deal but for someone that could mean well read. My friend considers himself well-read just because he has read a lot of award winners. For me it doesn’t matter. To each to his own, if I start worrying about it, I will never get anything read :)

  15. January 17, 2011 9:14 am

    First, I’m very interested in hearing your take on Well Read Lives. Secondly, I’m glad that you brought this topic up.

    After I got my Literature degree, I *felt* well – read. But that was largely because I was comparing myself to the general pop that I hung out with. And in that case, I *was* well-read. I went on a classical hiatus for many years and am only finding myself returning to them recently. Upon this return, I’ve realized that for as many books that I have read, there are plenty that I haven’t. My list is holier than swiss cheese, man.

    So what does that mean? *shrug* That if I consider it for a long enough time I feel rather ignorant. Especially because, no longer in a university setting, I have forgotten mostly how to talk and think about classics. It surprises me that there used to be a time when I would moan that I couldn’t read an excerpt without analyzing it. Now I have to retrain my brain all over again. What’s that about? And also, this is perhaps what I struggle with the most.

  16. January 17, 2011 9:51 am

    This is certainly a topic worthy of a Sunday Salon post. I’m thinking it may stick to the back of my mind long enough to develop a more coherent argument than I’ll give here.

    I think ‘well-read’ has to mean more than reading a certain volume of books. The definitions you quote imply a level of intelligence that results from reading. It’s not just reading, it’s gaining information from reading. It’s one thing to have read a book; it’s another to understand and recall it enough to be able to make use of the books contents. I think someone who has read 80 of the 100 great books but cannot recall them much is less well read than someone who has read only 40 of them but can recall them all in detail.

    I think this topic has to be kept separate from the controversy over what is ‘classic,’ thought the two are interlinked, of course. 100 years ago, to be considered well-read a person needed a certain familiarity with with classics and everyone knew just what the classics were. Today, I think well-read people still are expected to know the classics, but they are also expected to understand that the term is maleable and that they should be familiar with several schools of ‘classics’ if they want to be considered ‘well-read.’

    You can see I still need to give this idea some thought.

    That’s one of the reasons why I like your blog so much.

  17. January 17, 2011 9:53 am

    This is an interesting, but a very complicated topic. And one that I often hesitate to express opinions about. Maybe part of that is because I am from a non-English speaking country. So the Canon you speak of is not necessarily the Canon I grew up with. In high school, we had to compose our own list of Dutch literature to read. There were limits to what was acceptable (as in, not 12 books of less than a 100 pages, not only books from a certain group of authors that write mostly about sex, etc). At first, that latter group was forbidden, but by the end of my years in high school, my teacher said: “even though I personally dislike the books, I think it is important to know what is happening in contemporary lit, so I advice you to read at least one of them”. Ugh, I disliked that he said that, because I personally disliked those books so much. But then of course, he was right in another way: maybe well read means not only knowing your classics, but keeping up to date as well?

    I filled out the same form as you mention, and only got to around 27 books. It was frustrating, seeing all the other bloggers mention how many they had read. But it also made me think: I am still catching up to what many people from English-speaking countries are presented with in high school. We read 3 books or so for English in high school, a bare minimum. And I wish I could say I was educated in either Dutch or English lit, because right now, I am neither since I started to ignore Dutch lit quite early on.

    So what does this long ramble contribute to the conversation? I am not sure. I felt I should explain my background a little before saying this: I kind of dislike the term Canon, or “well-read”, why? Because in my mind it always implies saing that some reading or some books are less deserving. I am aiming to read more of the books so many of you have grown up with, children’s books and books for adults, but I am also hoping to get more knowledgeable in niche areas such as “forgotten classics” or books by women. And I like to focus on certain countries from time to time. I think my idealistic view of being well -read would be that no one can claim to be well-read, because it almost implies that you are “done”, while for me it should always mean keeping an open view to what you have not read yet, to what you still lack.

    • January 23, 2011 5:13 am

      Iris, I just wanted to comment specifically on your reply because what you write is my story as well. I’m from Denmark and we didn’t read a lot of the English/American classics as well – I remember reading ‘Catcher in the Rye’, ‘Lord of the Flies’ (in fact I read that for three different classes during my school years) and parts of Dickens ‘Hard Times’. And since I too stopped reading Danish fiction, I haven’t really anything to put instead. I’ve been trying to get back into Danish fiction but in the 3 years I’ve been a Goodreads member and really tracked my reading, I’ve read 7 novels by Danish authors … so I can’t really say that I’m well-read in Danish litt either.
      I’ll comment more on being well-read below when I’ve finished reading all the other comments.

  18. January 17, 2011 9:53 am

    I think I consider myself on the road to well read. For me being well read means being able to make connections between what you are reading. To see how things both progress and connect. I don’t think you have to start at a particular point but that when you read A then you can see connections with B and C. For me that has really been happening a lot lately. Perhaps it is because I am reading a lot of books that are based in history but I don’t think that is the only reason. I recently wrote a post on the connections I was finding in reading.

    To me being well read is important but I don’t think I will ever arrive at a point where I say that “now I’m finished with that project, let’s learn to knit”. Being well read is an ongoing life long progress that has much to do with knowledge and what we in Sweden call “bildning”. They are both ever changing.

    Really interesting questions and something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately too (in fact I wrote a whole chapter on it for my thesis…and then it got cut in editing :D)

  19. January 17, 2011 9:56 am

    To me, being well read means that you’ve read widely but also that you’ve read deeply. To be well read is to understand how one book links to another, how it was influenced by what came before it and how it inspired what came after. You can appreciate a book not just as a piece of literature but as a piece of history. You can’t appreciate Paradise Lost without knowing its Biblical inspiration just as you can’t fully appreciate Northanger Abbey without having read the gothic novels Austen was inspired to satirize. You can obviously read these works without their precursors but the experience is less than it could and should be. To be well read, to me, is not simply to read as much as you can but to understand well that which you read.

    I have always been particularly impressed by the reading list at St. John’s College. Yes, the focus is on the Western canon but that is where my main interest lies, though I do enjoy stepping out of it occassionally. As a reader, I love lists though I don’t generally feel compelled to follow them but, if I were going to, this would be the list.

    This is such an interesting topic, Eva! I can’t wait to see what others make of it.

  20. January 17, 2011 10:01 am

    Well, Eva I think you’ve made us all think about something this morning =) At first when I saw “well-read” I thought classics, which in all honesty I haven’t read many of. However when I saw your definition and synonyms my thought was quite different. Because if well-read means that you are knowledgeable or literate or learned and well-informed through reading, then aren’t we all well-read? I’ll be the first to admit, I have my favorite genres and don’t necessarily seek out those books outside of those genres. I would also say that just because I don’t read those books doesn’t mean I’m ignorant or illiterate or uneducated. So, in my opinion I think we, as readers, are all well-read, wouldn’t you?

  21. January 17, 2011 10:32 am

    I love this article. I like that you have presented many sides. Personally, I believe being well read is to have read a good cross section of every genre. The best of the best, if you will. But one cannot rely on lists. Half of the best of lit lists are also Masterpiece Theater options, so while I have not read Bleak House in its entirety, I know the story. So the question then becomes am I well read or am I just pop culture literate? Another point-we live in a world in which most people do not read AT ALL. So, for a book snob like myself, my dream job at a library began as a nightmare of checking out Patterson after Patterson (how can they read this crap) to thank goodness they are checking out any “books” at all. If I had a nickel for every person who comes in and asks me about some classic I forced myself through…I would have a nickel. So being well read has not helped me in this modern climate-except I feel I “get” more of the allusions on the Simpsons than the average bear.

  22. January 17, 2011 10:32 am

    I never know if I’m well-read or not — sometimes when the conversation turns to books, I feel like I’m keeping up admirably, and then I feel super proud of myself. But sometimes I just haven’t read anything people are talking about. :/ Which I guess makes it sound like well-read-ness is something I judge based on what I’ve read compared with what other people have read. That seems like a reasonable standard, actually: it’s hard to know how many books I could have read in the time I’ve had so far, except by comparison with what other people are able to read.

  23. January 17, 2011 11:06 am

    I definitely know I”m not well-read by the traditional sense. I can often feel illiterate there are so many books and authors I haven’t read. Additionally, while I read classics in high school (with a side of Anne Rice), I didn’t read as much then as I do now.

    As far as the desire to be well-read…well I’d both like to be and not. It’s semi-important to me to at least sample blockbuster huge books that the whole culture is consuming (I often hear people say they have no desire to read Twilight or The girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but I feel differently, I think books are a great point of connection and I want to know what’s connecting) and so by the same token I’d like to read more classics. Some I don’t get on with (Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and many others) but I’m also surprised by others.

    And lastly, I’d like to be well-read in certain kinds of books.

    But I do get distracted so it’s a goal I may never reach.

    I think you’re right about the abundance of choice creating perhaps, different ways of being well-read. Sounds like you’re soon to be well-read on being well-read! :)

  24. January 17, 2011 11:38 am

    The concept of what constitutes the well-read individual is such a subjective one. I know that many of my friends would consider me to be well-read, whereas I am totally horrified by how much there is out there which would be considered part of the well-read person’s reading history that I have yet to get round to. For me, though, the notion of being well-read has to contain within it not just an element of how many books you read, but also of how you interact with the books you read. For me, a well-read person is someone who thinks about the books and reflects on what the writer had to say and how they set about saying it. Quality as well as quantity.

  25. January 17, 2011 11:43 am

    Similar to Jenny, if I can hold my own with at least KNOWing about if not having read the books others happen to be talking about, I can say I’m well-read. They don’t call it ‘perfect-read’, thank goodness.

    YOU, Eva are one incredibly active and diverse reader! Or we could answer the question with a “so what?” Like, are you going to STOP reading once you attain the title?

  26. January 17, 2011 12:39 pm

    Everyone else has said “everyone else has said” already. :O) With that overly said, I guess, just for each subjective pass at it, I’ll throw my own “it’s subjective” bit in there, too.
    I find myself to have very eclectic taste. Whether that counts as “well read”, I don’t know. I don’t read Austen but I love Vonnegut, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. I’ve read Woolf and Nabokov and Doyle. I love SOME classics, some in other languages, SOME modern stuff, some cheesy, some breezy, some altogether horrendous.
    In some circles, it isn’t even about being well read as it is about being well opinioned once well read. So, I might read Lolita or Jane Eyre but might have a hugely adverse reaction to it which is more dangerous than never reading it at all.
    As most have said, Eva, you are MY personal definition of “well-read” if I do have one. You are forever in my erm…good books as someone who reads outside the box and you’ve always (ok, at least for as long as I’ve been blogging) inspired me to read better and wider. Thanks for that!

  27. January 17, 2011 12:43 pm

    It seems to me that the meaning of being a well-read reader changes with each person you ask and I like that. For me being well-read means having a decent understanding of the canon and also various genres and books from other countries. I love to read Pulitzer prize-winning plays and that’s part of being well-read to me. Since I want to be a librarian, it’s important to me to be somewhat well-read, though being a librarian is becoming more and more about technology. I’m doing a 5-year challenge called Project Fill-in-the-Gaps where participants come up with their own list of books to read to become more well-read. My list changes every year as I take off certain books and add others. I bought The Well-Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer a few years ago. I’ve read some parts and skimmed others. The one thing I don’t like about it, is that it stops at the 1960s and don’t really include works by people of color.

  28. January 17, 2011 1:28 pm

    It’s hard to say whether I am “well-read” or not. I go through phases with my reading, where I read a lot of really diverse literature and then I’ll go back to reading more pop maybe ‘fluff’ reading of fantasy novels – which are a guilty pleasure. When I was a kid I had a rule for myself at the library and I still hold to it as an adult, for every fantasy/guilty pleasure novel I would pull off the shelf, I would also grab a “classic”/more serious/harder book to read. There isn’t really a rhyme or reason to the rule, it’s just to keep me a little more well rounded – or at least that’s how I feel. I like to look at the lists and I love to find new old books I haven’t read before, but I try not to take stock in them, because according to some I’m well-read and others I’m not and frankly I get tired of counting books.

    I neglected my English studies when I was in college (I focused on science and math and my reading lagged due to it), but one class I did take was a course in “Classical Mythology.” To me the definition of classical meant ancient/old and so I thought it would include several cultures. So I was surprised when I was only immersed in Greek Mythology – I enjoyed the class – but I was disappointed that there wasn’t variety. Just now looking up the definition of classical I found out that apparently one meaning is “of pertaining to Roman or Greek antiquity” – who knew that the word singles out one whole culture. It’s just interesting how our concept of classical is limited to (as literary omnivore put above) “old white dudes.”

    I guess I read what I read because I like what I read and that’s all that I really need to make me happy. Though I admit, Eva, after reading post after post of yours, I am opening my horizons and adding book after book to my wishlist that are infinitely different and I’m thankful for that.

  29. January 17, 2011 1:37 pm

    I don’t know that I’ve given much deliberate thought to what precisely it means to be “well-read,” other than to say something along the lines of having a general understanding of literature through the ages and into the present day. And I have tried, with varying degrees of effort over the years, to gain that sort of knowledge.

    However, as others have said, there’s always going to be more to read, more knowledge to gain, and we’re probably all more well-read in some areas than in others. For example, I’d say I’m well-read when it comes to the Victorians; I’ve loved them for 20+ years, so I’ve read most of the standards that everyone reads and a few more obscure works. But even so, I know tons of people who have read Victorian novels that I haven’t–and some I haven’t even heard of. So I’m well-read in that area, but others are even better read.

    And then there are areas where I’m not well-read at all. I’ve read very little literature in translation. Before last year, I could probably count the number of French novels I’d read on one hand. Huge gap in knowledge there. And because a lot of my education focused on the Western canon, I’m more well-read when it comes to dead white people than dead or living people of color.

    So I’m not sure it’s possible to be as well-read as I’d like to be. There’s always going to be something else. But that’s part of the fun, isn’t it? I don’t think I’d want to be done with such a project as becoming well-read. It’s all a gradual process of becoming better-read (and reading better, as others here have suggested).

  30. Jillian permalink
    January 17, 2011 2:07 pm

    What a great question!

    Like many others, I’m realizing that, even when I finish my list of 250, I won’t feel well-read. I mourn the fact that it will be impossible for me to get to all the books avaliable in my lifetime.

    Why is there this definition ‘well-read’? According to what standards?

    Far more important, I think, is to be curious and to seek knowledge, clarity and wisdom in books, in people, and in life. If I can look across the street and see the face of a little boy and connect somehow an idea or a concept — I am well-read. Because reading is so much more than words on paper.

  31. January 17, 2011 2:56 pm

    Great topic! When I finished my literature degree I really worried for a while about how un-well read I was. I had started work in a clothes shop, everyone was younger and the talk was all celeb gossip a sharp contrast from days discussing the socio-hisorical influences of The Wasteland. I started trying to tick off books I ‘should’ have read, and within a month of leaving uni I was signed up for a Literature MA.
    I still feel that I have so much to read to be considered well read – which for me is more about have a broad literature based knowledge, being able to read across time and continents and see the links, patterns and influences. I still try and read the classics, the modern classics and some contemporary literature. I have the 1001 list(s) saved on my computer and tick off the books I’ve read, and I think the BBC list is quite meagre – it has Jacqeline Wilson on it! But I’ve accepted I’ll never get there.
    I miss being able to discuss and consider books the way I did at uni, the flow of ideas etc gradually ebbed off, one day I’d love to return. That said, at uni we covered so many books in such a short space of time (often a 12 week module consisted of 8-10 books and we completed 3-6 modules in that 12 weeks) that several of those I read, were read at such a pace that I would never say I ‘know’ them, and several are on the list of books that must be reread. Our degree course was not focused just on the Western Canon, we read from Medievel times through to the present day, considered colonialism and post-colonialism, post-modernism and literature from the 1980s as well as the usual. Largely the Victorian period was passed by – very strange for an English university.
    Rambling aside, no I’m not well-read, yes I’d love to be, and I need those lists.

  32. January 17, 2011 3:03 pm

    To paraphrase a quote I once heard:

    “The well-read are proud of all that they have read, but the truly well-read are ashamed that they have not read more”. :)

  33. January 17, 2011 3:09 pm

    I like to think I’m well-read but I’ve read hardly any new fiction the past couple of years — I’m trying so hard to catch up with classics that sort of pushes them down the list. Then of course I have discovered Persephones and Viragos and I’m all into that at the moment. . . I’m a pretty eclectic reader. I do agree with previous posters about how subjective it all is — one could be extremely well-read in books written by dead Englishmen, but be completely lacking in books in translation. I do find that all these so-called best lists simply reflect the people who write them! I think there have been three or four versions of that famous book “1001 Books to Read Before You Die” which I found to be extremely heavy on the British 20th century — hardly anything before 1700, and not much in translation. I don’t think people will ever agree.

    As long as you don’t say your favorite book is War and Peace, and then quote the first line as “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” (as was done recently on TV by RNC chairman Michael Steele) I think you’re in good shape.

  34. January 17, 2011 4:13 pm

    I don’t know if I have a definition for “well-read,” but if there is one, I probably wouldn’t meet it. I don’t like the Guardian list very much as it is very English-centric. I like Violet Crush’s idea of being well-read by reading books from a diversity of authors, cultures and subjects. I personally think being well-read includes reading a significant amount of both fiction and non-fiction and also having a good basis in mythology as so much literary allusion refers to mythology.

    But I also just don’t like the TERM well-read. Like you, I don’t really know what it means. I also don’t want to define it because that will, by nature, be exclusionary. I think it is possible to read many books from a list but still completely clueless about the world around you and keep your narrow view and bigotry. In which case, was it just rote reading? Does that even count? Should one have to be an active reader to be well-read? I think so.

  35. January 17, 2011 5:22 pm

    Oh those lists. I tend to just think ‘Well more things I might want to read in the future, ta for the suggestion’ and I kind of mentally, well not eliminate, but don’t take as seriously any lists that include Birdsong. I know, everyone else loves it, it’s going to be a film or is already a play or something. I think it sucked and the sex scenes were terrible.

    What does well read mean to me now? Well I guess it means attempting that impossible task of having a wide knowledge of many, many types of literature so I’ll never look like a totally ignorant person whoever you meet. Personally I think you could read all the traditional canon classics, then walk into a room full of sci-fi afficianados and feel so not well read – genre experts can be so intensely academic that you need to have read all their canon to even get what subject they’re talking about. I know that sounds like a very ‘others’ focused way of explaining well read, but I don’t mean I have to read what others think highly of, just that I should make an effort to read so diversely that I’m able to try talking with anyone on their speciality of reading. I guess I think the books you read should enable you to make connections with other readers in a way and once you can try to make those connections (even if it’s to disagree with someone’s praise for a book)I’ll be on the track to being well read.

    And I agree with Aarti that you need to be an active reader to be well read, but I’d suggest that you can be an emotionally active reader instead of a a traditionally critical active reader (or a mix of both) and that makes you well read. As long as you absorb something from what you read you’re working towards being engaged and open to all the possibilities of books. Maybe well read is a state of mind to be held as an ideal for encouragement to read more and read deep rather than a goal you can reach?

  36. January 17, 2011 6:05 pm

    My definition of well-read has changed over the years. As an English major to be well-read, I felt I had to have read certain classics. I even read Moby-Dick over my summer for no other reason than that as an English major, I had to have read it!

    Then I studied publishing in grad school and realized that I’d been reading tons of dead authors and had no idea what kinds of things were actually being published today. So my idea of well-read changed to an idea of reading more broadly, being exposed to more authors and genres and cultures.

    As a mother of a young child, I have a lot less time to read than I used to. So being well-read is just more about taking time to read. And even taking time to reread my childhood favorites with my daughter.

    But I still love those 100 lists, no matter how biased they are. I love counting the ones I’ve read and feeling smart for having read lots of them–and thinking that I might be considered well-read in someone else’s eyes.

  37. January 17, 2011 6:34 pm

    You know, I just don’t think I believe in the concept of being “well-read”. As long as you are happy with your own reading efforts, that’s all that matters. For me, I feel the professors, writers, journalists, etc who make up these lists are influenced by their own agendas and leave many important texts out of the mix, for instance books written by women. That doesn’t mean that I don’t use the lists for reading suggestions, though. Are there books that “everyone should read”? I don’t know.

  38. January 17, 2011 6:58 pm

    Ok, haven’t given this a lot of thought but here it goes. The first thing that comes to my mind when someone says well-read is that they’ve read a lot of classics. Not sure why I think that but there it is. Of course then I think, I haven’t read that many but when I start thinking about my reading I do consider myself well read. Especially when you think of statistics that cite that most Americans are watching more tv or only read two books a year, that sort of thing. So I guess for me a year of being well read means I’ve tried to be inclusive with my genres. I’ll always read more fiction and mysteries but I try to add fiction from foreign countries, YA, graphic novels, etc. Read at large! Good question Eva.

  39. January 17, 2011 7:11 pm

    I do try to be well-read, and years of grad school helps! But yes, we can’t be “well-read” in quite the same way as people used to, because there is so much more available, and so much that people consider valuable to read. I think having a general knowledge of what’s out there is a part of being well-read; even though there are a ton of books you haven’t read, you can know a context within which to place those books. I think all the book lists out there speak to our anxieties about how difficult it is to be well-read!

  40. January 17, 2011 8:40 pm

    What an interesting conversation! It’s a topic I’ve been thinking about for my personal definition for quite a few months now. At first, my thought was that I’ve been much to far away from the classics, that to be well read is to read the “great books.” And in a way, I still think that’s true, but the importance is then in defining “great.” I personally think the foundational books are important–the plays and epics and novels and poetry that everything else has been built upon. So in that way, the dead white male canon does still have its relevance today. But at the same time, I’ve been reading about so many other books, from other countries and other eras and other peoples (i.e., not white men). What was the foundational literature in the Asian countries? Africa? South America? All those tiny European countries that the canon so often overlooks? What are the books we read today that will be considered great tomorrow?

    With more questions than answers, I think that being “well read” means reading everything as part of a never-ending search to find that answer. Or to find that under-appreciated gem! With so many options today, with the ease of finding books totally unfamiliar to us, it seems that to be well read is to be open. I don’t think we can limit ourselves to the canon of the past, but nor do I think we can ignore it. What a great adventure the reader can take!

  41. She permalink
    January 17, 2011 10:00 pm

    I would definitely say that I strive to be well read. I have off-and-on followed the 1001 list for over a year now and definitely fall back on it when picking books for my challenge. For me personally, being well read means being able to understand allusions to characters, authors, plotlines, etc. as well as being able to contribute to conversations by using my bookish knowledge. I like to be ‘in the know’, if you will, and more particularly to feel as though I can follow a conversation that takes a literary turn. In addition to this, I think it’s also helpful when you get into those tight argumentative corners to be on the up and up about a range of topics to fend off your foe. I don’t think it’s necessarily a pompous, tool-y pride that makes me want to read the ‘necessary’ books (you know, to say ‘why yes, I have read that and this and that other one’), but I do think that it’s important to be well read.

    More broadly, I think being well read is rather subjective. What a psychologist is expected to have read and what an archaeologist is expected to have read are generally quite different, but nonetheless, they need to have read those area specific works in order to be well read. I think there are overarching books and papers that everyone should read in order to be enlightened, but I do think that what is important to one person’s life, relationships, and careers can be totally different from another’s. I don’t think there will ever be a set list of should-be-reads, as the list is completely and utterly subjective.

  42. January 17, 2011 10:44 pm

    Excellent post, EVa! Thoughtful and interesting and is something I’ve found myself wondering about every once in a while too: what is well-read? Like you ask, does it exist anymore, even?

    I like to look at the 1000 books list or 100 best books etc, for fun, to show myself what I have read that others think are worth reading, and to move me to try new and different books and authors. I really like the commentator’s suggestion above that in today’s world, maybe well-read should involve reading the best from other cultures, in whatever from of fiction/poety/history etc you enjoy. I do think that thinking about the book is crucial to this idea. The idea about having a book impress itself on you – as litlove says, if my life is changed for reading a book. Because that is the real import of the written word, I think, the transmitting of ideas and knowledge. That would be a well-read person for me – someone who thinks about what they have read, no matter what genre or area, and that reading has changed them somehow. It doesn’t have to be a big change, it can be an ‘a-ha’ moment where suddenly you see something a little differently. So long as we let books change us, and we have understood a little more for reading them – been enriched by the experience, then that would be my definition of a well-read reader, today.

  43. January 18, 2011 4:22 am

    Now that you’ve made me think of it, I’ve realized that my idea of well-read is very basic: have I read most of the books that people I meet (and with which I discuss books) have read or mention? And in general, I do, as you can imagine, the conversation can turn to classics or to bestsellers. If I haven’t read one particular book, I’ve sometimes read something else by the author or is on my wishlist plans.

    In the end I agree with Beth F above: “if you read a lot and live long enough then you eventually get around to reading a little bit of everything, which in my mind is being well read.”

  44. January 18, 2011 7:12 am

    Harold Bloom has always been helpful…

  45. January 18, 2011 8:10 am

    What a diffcult question! :D I think there are so few people who are really well-read. And mostly people are well-read in a certain canon or on a specific topic. I’d never consider myself well-read, because to me that would mean that I would be familiar with the canon from other cultures.
    I love lists, but that BBC list, what does that say? That one has read the canon of mostly straight old white men? Those lists are more fascinating because of what they leave out than what they include, I think.
    Being well-read should be something to strife for, but I don’t think you can ever achieve it. (Luckily) There’s no end to it :)

  46. January 18, 2011 12:08 pm

    I think this is an interesting question; I always strive to be well-read, but I often feel behind the times. I do not read books when they first come out and my reading time increases and decreases, depending on the season. One characteristic which makes me believe some0ne is well read is the diversity of conversation topics. Although, it is not a hard and fast rule.

  47. January 19, 2011 10:43 am

    I have been mulling this over and think that for me, being well-read is not so much a matter of having gone through a list of books but of feeling that I have become knowledgable. That is, through reading, whether it be fiction, non-fiction, required reading or books I have picked up for fun, I have learned about different subject matters and perspectives on the human condition. I think this is why I will never truly feel comfortable claiming that I am well-read – there will always be something new to learn, and something outside the scope of my interests or understanding.

  48. January 19, 2011 4:05 pm

    I think I’m happy just being “somewhat well-read”. I’m more well-read than most people I know in real life and I read a lot for a second language (English that is). I follow lots of the best books list but mostly for guidelines. I wasn’t raised in English speaking country, so I’m always curious about what people think are the best English books (and sometimes International books). I don’t intend to read everything on those lists (not that it’s humanly possible anyway) and I read the ones I think I’ll enjoy or learn from. At the end of the day, I do what I like doing, and that’s all that matters.

  49. January 20, 2011 10:12 am

    As someone who got a PhD in English literature at a relatively early age and then didn’t end up in a conventional academic career, I think I have a slightly different take on “well read.” It’s a little teacherly, because I do like the concept of a canon as a collection of books that everyone should read in order to be part of a literary community. But it’s a little haphazard, in that–in my experience, at least–anyone who thinks they’re “well-read” is apt to be a little too self-congratulatory about it and not nearly intellectually curious enough to go on and become better read.

  50. January 20, 2011 3:01 pm

    What a fascinating post and hopefully series of posts that you will be writing, from the sounds of it, Eva! I don’t consider myself very well-read, though I would love to be! But then, if being well-read means reading more dead white guys, or more Western only books, I’m not really interested. I rather think that the term well-read these days needs another qualifier. Could I be well-read in African lit? I would love to be that! Or well-read in int. development / int. health care non-fiction? I’m far away from well-read in anything but I’d be more a topical well-read than an overall well-read I think!

  51. January 23, 2011 6:21 am

    What is being well-read? I’ve read all the above thoughts and I feel that I have a read a very wide range of thoughts on the subject – but that I’m no closer to a final answer than I was in the beginning. So what is it to me? Being a philosopher, there are a list of books that I feel like I should have read (Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Burke, Hume, Locke, Berkeley, Heidegger etc etc etc) because much of these are based on each other and new philosophers have also read these and build on them. But even if you have read all of these, you can always go back and reread them and get something new.
    In my personal reading, I try to read very varied – both quality literature and more brain candy, fluffish types of books. For me, there are some books that I think you ‘should’ read if you want to be considered well-read and this is because they have such an huge influence still in today’s culture – I think there are a reason that some books are deemed ‘classics’. For me, these include Dickens, Austen, the Brontë sisters – but also Proust, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky – and of course many more. Of course, you have to get something from reading these – it’s not enough just to read it to be able to tick off a box on a list.
    I too like to read some of what’s up now – like Harry Potter – but at the same time, I have no interest in reading Twilight or Stieg Larsson (I don’t like crime novels) so it of course all ends up being very subjective.
    I in no way consider myself well-read. I have huge lacks in English and American litt because I didn’t grow up with English as my first language. I completely agree with Tony above that if you are truly well-read, you know how much you still have to read, how much you are missing – a very Socratic thought.

  52. January 29, 2011 9:33 am

    I think you hit the nail on the head with the “well-read about what”? question. I personally want to be well read in the classics: both ancient and victorian and American. I am not interested in being well read of popular fiction. So yes, the top lists are for “most read in England” or favorites of NYTimes readers or what not. But I want to make my own top 100 list and I have to read a lot to get there.

    Interesting discussion, sorry it took me so long to respond.

  53. Jenny permalink
    February 2, 2011 6:22 pm

    I recently read a quotation from Joseph Epstein, on this very topic:

    “There is also a danger: once begun, there is no end. I myself would rather be well-read than dead, but I have a strong hunch about which will come first.”

    My thoughts precisely!


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