Tuesday, June 18, 2013

What does it mean to be "Well Read"?

So, my good friend Lor tweeted this link from Book Riot: From Zero to Well-Read in One Hundred Books. If you aren't interested in clicking on it (and I actually don't really blame you) I'll tell you what it's about.

The author of this post is giving advice on how to become well-read if you've never read a single piece of literature before. He asserts that if you read these hundred books on his list, you will magically be "well read," despite claiming that there is no quantifiable definition of the term "well read." So, yes. He contradicts himself directly. Which is only the first problem I have with this particular article. Here are all the quibbles I have with it, in no particular order:

- "We have a term for 'well-read' but absolutely no one can come close to defining it." Well. Guess what? He then "defines" well-read as a person who has read the hundred books on his list.

- This list is to help a person who has "never read any literature." The person who is capable of reading and who has never read any literature does not exist. Seriously. You may have read only children's literature, but he acknowledges by virtue of having several children's titles on the list the fact that children's literature is, in fact, literature. So, if you learned to read, you've read literature. This list is void because it applies to no one, ever.

- There are several "first" books without their sequels. Who reads Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone without reading the rest? And, for that matter, if the whole point of "being well-read" is to know what the heck people are talking about when they talk about books, I would think you'd need to read the entirety of the best-selling series of all time. Just a thought.

Game of Thrones, Dune, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Anne of Green Gables, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Hunger Games, and 50 Shades of Grey all make the list, without their respective sequels. Interestingly, The Hobbit, the prequel to the Lord of the Rings series makes the list, but Lord of the Rings itself (any of the books) is not on the list. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn similarly appears as a single title from the middle of a series.

(No. I'm not going to discuss 50 Shades being on the list. It's absurd.)

- Conversely, several "collections" are listed as "must-reads." The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, as well as collections from Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allen Poe, and Flannery O'Connor. I have a hard time taking a man seriously when he lists everything written by Emily Dickinson, but only cites two of Shakespeare's works. Speaking of which...

- Two Shakespeare plays makes you "well-read"? I mean, Hamlet is good and important, but could you imagine a person who had no idea what Macbeth was about? Or The Taming of the Shrew? Or Much Ado About Nothing? Henry V?


I'm not a major, uber Shakespeare fan or anything, and I'm not one that advocates "You must read the complete works of Shakespeare to be taken seriously." But to claim that reading Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet alone will give you a functional understanding of Shakespeare and his influence on literature, pop culture, language, OUR WORLD, is ridiculous.

- This list is really, really white, with a heavy emphasis on Russian, British, and American novelists.  And that's really all I have to say about that.

- The Gospels and The Pentateuch are both listed. As a deeply religious person, I am highly offended by these being listed among ninety-eight titles of fiction. As a deeply religious person, I am highly offended by the idea that you can read the "greatest hits" of two major religious texts and call it a day, claiming you understand what more than two billion people on this planet claim as their lifeline. If you're a non-religious person, I'd think you might be offended by the claim that you must read religious texts in order to be taken seriously.

(I don't know if you're actually offended, it's just a guess.)

And this point really feeds into my last, which is really the gist of this entire rant.

- This list feels like it's less "How to Be Well-Read" and more "How to Fake Being Well-Read."

This list has some huge, gaping holes. Only the most popular works (not the best, just the best-selling) of some of the most popular authors throughout the history of the world are included. A single title from Austen, a single piece of work from any of the Brontes. A handful of fantasy, even less of science fiction, virtually no romance outside the major gothic/tragic/literary classics. A single horror title. Not a single vampire (love them or hate them, they are culturally significant across pretty much all of human history). No Hugo. No Dumas. One Dickens.

This is a list written to help people pretend to care about books.

Which is a damn shame.

It could have been a list written to help people learn to love books, to discover what kind of books they love most. I am not against lists of "Must Read" books. On my bucket list is the BBC's 100 Greatest Novels of All Time, and I'm making good headway on it (35 down!). I understand the purpose, and I understand that these lists cannot be perfect. But this one?

It's just bad.

Since this makes me all ragey-faced, please, tell me what you think it means to be well-read and what books would be on your list. Or blog about it and drop me your link. I'd like to revisit this topic in a much more positive way. 


  1. I so have to write a blog post about this but I agree with you totally on all counts. When people make lists like that, I wonder if they're making some inside joke and they're hoping someone catches on.

  2. Melbourne on my MindJune 18, 2013 at 5:07 PM

    I actually don't get particular rage-faced about lists like this, which is surprising because I have a tendency to get rage-faced about pretty much anything ever. Lists like the BBC's are usually better thought out, but have a heavy emphasis on the nineteenth century. The most modern book on lists like that is usually published in the 60s. Which makes me rage-faced because it's like they're saying (not singling out the Beeb here, just talking about list creators in general) that there hasn't been anything written since then that's worthy of your time. Which is ridiculous. So at least this list has recent stuff on there, even if some of it is utter bollocks (I'm looking at you, 50 Shades of Misogyny).

    But if you're talking about a list that's designed to make you look well-read, it would make FAR more sense (at least from my perspective) to go with the more obscure works by popular authors. Replace Pride & Prejudice with Persuasion, Great Expectations with Bleak House, Romeo & Juliet with Coriolanus. Also, if you're going to list two Shakespeare plays, why would you go with two tragedies and neglect all the comedies and the historic plays?!

    Okay, maybe it's making me more rage-faced than I previously thought. Finally, on the subject of religious works: as a non-religious person, it doesn't offend me that they're on a "you must read this to be well-read" list. Because The Bible (or some form thereof) ALWAYS seems to end up on "100 books you must read before you die" lists. And it always ranks near the top of "100 books you must read before you die AS VOTED BY YOU!!" lists, because it IS a book that a lot of people read regularly and turn to when they're in need of comfort or whatever. You know?

    Long comment is long. Sorry...

  3. I apparently missed the fact that he put the Gospels on there. Or maybe assumed they were something else...either way. That's technically four books, not one, but since he's only counting it as one, I guess I've read 16 books on that list, not just 15. Anywayyy...

    As a theatre minor and lover of Shakespeare, I agree that his choice of Shakespearean plays that make you supposedly "well-read" is absurd. Not only does he pick only the most popular ones (which, as you pointed out, he does with several of the other authors like Austen), but they're really the most cliche ones and, in my opinion, not some of his best works. At the VERY lease there should be one from each of his genres (tragedy, comedy, historical). R&J and Hamlet are super famous, but, in reality, they're not nearly as awesome as some of the others. I feel like he should have put titles like Much Ado, Midsummer, The Tempest, As You Like It, Merchant of Venice, Comedy of Errors or Measure for Measure. If you're gonna go with a tragedy, do King Lear. That one's crazy and not as cliche as R&J, Hamlet, or the Scottish play. Also, I've read far more Shakespeare than a lot of people but I've never read R&J. So there's that.

    As for the rest of his list, well, I just don't even know. I think it's strange that he puts a lot of the "complete works" on there. Having "Leaves of Grass" is fine. I read excerpts of that for an America lit class in college and it's all wonderful, but I don't think I need to read every poem Emily Dickinson ever wrote to be considered well-read. Or every poem of any poet period, for that matter.

    At first I just thought this was kind of ridiculous, but now it's kind of making me ragey. I may end up blogging about this now...