“Just because something’s classical doesn’t necessarily mean it’s readable.”
He’s just so ridiculously well-read it’s ridiculous. You just sit there and feel quite a worm by comparison.
—Brett Anderson Suede
It’s a mild compliment, as compliments go.
Being “well-read” isn’t like being brave, or generous, or talented, or even smart. It’s a purely personal condition that does nothing for others, and does little enough for the well-read. While knowledge gained from reading may be satisfying in the extreme, it rarely bestows any practical advantage. To call someone well-read is more acknowledgement than praise.
It’s also an extremely subjective quality. One man’s Steele is another man’s Steinbeck, as it were, and it’s not easy to argue that either man benefits above the other. And yet, there are plenty of folks who wish to be well-read, or at least to be thought of that way. Generally speaking, persons regarded as well-read are presumed sage, cerebral, sophisticated, able to discourse intelligently on a variety of weighty topics. Well-read is cool, albeit more Hermione Granger cool than Falstaff cool. But, with something like 30 million titles to choose from, where does the well-read wannabe begin?
Long about the 17th century, books were hard to make, expensive to buy, and consumed almost exclusively by the genteel lettered classes. With the Age of Reason coming out of the gate strong, public tastes ran to Ancient Wisdom, and bookbinders weren’t inclined to waste precious parchment on anything but the classics, venerable volumes by the likes of Plato and Cicero, Aquinas and Aristotle, Milton and Marlowe, often in the original lingo. And, with relatively few titles in circulation, it was entirely possible for a well-heeled Renaissance Man with lots of time on his hands to work through the entire known library. This classical canon remains at the core of today’s concept of well-read.
I was well read, but perhaps that only made me stupid.
Page forward 200 years, when universities in both the Old World and the New betook themselves to edit the lists of “Great Books” to include more contemporary works holding potential for professional, political and social application. A well-read population thusly educated, they reasoned, would surely develop a classless and self-governing Utopia capable of solving all of the ills of the Industrial Revolution. How well they fared is debatable, but names like Dickens and Dickenson, Whitman and Woolf have been bread and butter for the well-read ever since. Toss in a smattering of American literary lights like Twain, Faulkner and Hemingway, and a handful of 20th Century scribes like Tolkien and Vonnegut, Morrison and Nabakov, George Orwell and Harper Lee, and you’re ready to become well-read.
A few words of advice.
When planning your journey to learned, think first in categories. Well-read people can and do boast familiarity with a broad range of genres, from the historical to the dystopian, from mystery to poetry, and from science fiction to popular fiction. Well-read implies well-rounded, and you should fill your literary plate like you’re ordering from an old Chinese menu—one from Column A, two from Column B, and so forth.
Just because something’s classical doesn’t necessarily mean it’s readable. The 4,000-year-old “Epic of Gilgamesh” may be fascinating as the oldest piece of literature extant, but 6th century “Beowulf” has a monster, too, and a comprehensible story line. “The Iliad” is mostly just Homer dropping names, and wading through Chaucer is like dog-paddling in oatmeal. “A Thousand and One Arabian Nights,” on the other hand, is actually a really fun read, and Xenophon’s action-packed “Anabasis” both rips and roars. By all means, be choosy.
There are lots of well-read lists to choose from, some of which are weighted on the side of auteurs au courant. Believe it or not, the art of writing didn’t disappear when Shakespeare hung up his quill, and 21st century scribblers like Ephron, Gladwell, Larsson and even Rowling loom large on many must-read manifestos. If you’re hoping that being well-read is going to make you more popular at parties, don’t neglect the bestseller list.
I’m not well-read, but when I read, I read well.
Books considered “important” tend to also be “formidable” and often “dense.” Since even quality reading is supposed to be fun, don’t try to tackle “The Catcher in the Rye,” “Lord of the Flies” and “The Divine Comedy” in one grueling go. If “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” brought you down, lift yourself up with some short stories by Ray Bradbury, or “The Extraordinary Cases of Sherlock Holmes,” or even “The Wind in the Willows.” Mixing it up will reduce brain fatigue and improve comprehension.
Don’t get fenced in by lists. The dictionary defines well-read as “knowledgeable and informed as a result of extensive reading,” and there’s plenty of useful knowledge and interesting information to be read outside of books. Newspapers are a prime and timely window on current events, and a few minutes a week thumbing magazines like The Smithsonian, Travel & Leisure, Popular Science and Teen Beat will help you become broad-spectrum conversant. It’s all The Culture, people.
To be well-read, you need to read well. If you’re just burning pages to get to the bragging rights, you’re missing the whole and only point of being well-read. Every book on every well-read list is there because a lot of people believe it has something to say that’s worth hearing. Slow down, turn your phone to airplane mode and give an honest listen. Being well-read may have no real-world value, but the private gratifications contained within the pages of a truly good book are many, mighty, and yours forever.
If you read a lot of books, you’re considered well-read. But if you watch a lot of TV, you’re not considered well-viewed.