On being well read

What is it to be “well read”? It is usually used to describe someone who has read a great deal, but the word “well” seems to imply quality rather than – or, at least, in addition to – quantity. After all, we’d hesitate to describe someone as “well read” merely on the grounds that they have read every single issue of Viz! Don’t get me wrong – I like a bit of smut myself, and often enjoy Viz: but I just don’t think that reading Viz contributes to my being “well read”. 

I’d personally describe someone as well-read if they have read with care and have taken in (i.e. understood to a high level) a large quantity of the best that has been written. And this raises the obvious questions “How much is a large quantity?” and “How do we determine the best that has been written?” Let us not get too hung up trying to answer these questions: on the issue of quantity, more is obviously better than less, although careful reading of less is preferable to casual reading of more; and on the question of quality, I am more than happy take as my guide the consensus of knowledgeable opinion across the generations: for such a consensus most certainly does exist, and its existence renders highly unlikely the hypothesis (taken as an absolute truth by so many who claim not to believe in absolutes) that all is merely subjective, and no more. 

Obviously, the expression “well read” is pretty meaningless without a context, and if our context is Western culture in general (and let’s just limit this discussion to Western culture for now), then the list of books that one should read is enormous. This list should encompass philosophy (Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Hegel, Kant, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, etc etc); the sciences (Newton, Darwin, Einstein, etc. – although the sciences are perhaps exceptional in that secondary texts can be at least as valuable as primary texts); economics (Smith, Ricardo, Marx, Keynes, etc); theology (St Augustine, Thomas a Kempis, Aquinas, etc); poetry (Homer, Pindar, Horace, Virgil, Dante, Heine, Pushkin, Leopardi, Yeats, Eliot, etc etc); drama (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Shakespeare, Molière, Racine, Ibsen, Chekhov, Brecht, etc); prose fiction (Boccaccio, Rabelais, Cervantes, Richardson, Austen, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Proust, Joyce, etc.); history (Thucydides, Froissart, Gibbon, Bloch, Huizinga, Braudel, etc.); and so on and so forth. Basically, there’s no end to it. And, without any false modesty at all (false modesty is not something I’ve ever believed in!), I have only read a very tiny fraction of what I think one should have read to be considered “well read”.

After a while, one realises that one won’t have time to read everything that is worth reading. A lifetime isn’t enough. And it isn’t simply a question of reading: one has to re-read. For how much can one take in of a profound work merely at first reading? The very use of the metaphor “profound” implies that much of the substance of the work lies below its surface – i.e. is not fully discernible on first acquaintance: such works need not merely to be read, but lived with. 

It seems to follow from all this that there is no-one who may truly be described as “well read”. Given that we, all of us, have but one lifetime, even the most learned of professors are, I think, unlikely to have lived with all that is worth living with. Being “well read” is a relative matter, not an absolute. 

But does it matter? Is it actually important to be “well read”? The answer depends upon the individual. Speaking for myself, I do want to take in and to appreciate, if I can and as far as I am capable of doing, at least some of what is considered the best. I want to do this because I find it enriching in ways I am not sufficiently articulate to explain to any degree of clarity; and, as someone-or-other nearly said, whereof one cannot articulate to any degree of clarity, one must shut the hell up. 

I do realise that there is far, far too much out there for me to take in. What chance do I have of catching up with all that I know I should catch up with? None. So I do what I imagine everyone else does: I restrict myself to what interests me most – or to what I haven’t yet tried, but feel might interest me most – and accept that there is much of immense value that I will never get to know. Inevitably, it means that I will never be as well read as I’d like to be, but that can’t be helped: it’s the same for everyone, and one learns to live with it. At least we’ll never run out of books to read!

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12 responses to this post.

  1. I think the only context I’ve encountered the phrase would be in compliments. Others have told me that I’m well-read, but I wouldn’t really think of that as being one of my qualities.

    Reply

    • Hello, and welcome to the board.

      Being described as “well read” is usually a compliment, but, of course, anyone who is aware of how much there is out there that is worth reading will realise how little of it they have read!

      Cheers, Himadri

      Reply

  2. Posted by Erika W. on April 23, 2011 at 11:45 am

    A thought for today: If one watches a lot of television why is there no praise for being well-viewed?

    Your blog is giving me enormous pleasure although I am too rushed off my feet (and mind) at the moment to give it the attention it deserves.

    Reply

    • Thank you very much for that, Erika – that really is most flattering!

      I think people assume that reading a book requires a greater intellectual effort than watching television or listening to music, and is, therefore, deserving of an accolade that these other activities aren’t. This is, admittedly, often the case, buut by no means always so: there are a great many books that require little or no effort to read, and, conversely, there are many films and television dramas, or pieces of music, that do make demands of the viewer or listener. Ultimately, I don’t think there’s anything worthy, as such, in pursuing that which requires intellectual effort: one does so if one is personally so inclined, and for no other reason.

      Reply

  3. You raise such interesting points. At least in my opinion, being well-read has almost nothing to do with the quality of the books which one reads but merely the insatiable curiosity which comes from reading all that there is. With my age group (19), it’s really difficult to find anyone who really has a desire and need to read, although there are many that will give it a try. A lot of people don’t understand that, like myself, some people NEED to read, it’s as important as working or having a relationship or being in a healthy happy state of mind. I for one haven’t strayed from reading the great classics, because, on my death bed, I would like to know that I have been witness to some of the greatest thoughts in history and not just knowledgeable on Jersey Shore.

    I don’t know, hope those ramblings make sense 😀

    Reply

    • Hello, and welcome to the board – and yes, you’re certainly aking a lot of sense! 🙂

      It seems to me that reading, like so much else, is a habit to be developed. And yes, some books are going to be difficult: a writer can hardly tackle complex themes while avoiding difficulty. There is no compulsion to read difficult books if one doesn’t want to, but quite often, one does want to, because one knows from experience that the effort put into addressing such books is often rewarded. As you say, it’s something many of us feel we need to do. Not because we want to impress (we do not live in a society in which erudition impresses too many people) but simply because some of us want to come into contact with some of the best that has been thought and written.

      Reading such books is, as I say, a habit that is to be developed. Someone not used to reading serious literature can no more just dive into Proust or Joyce than someone like myself, say, could run the marathon. But, just as those who enjoy long-distance rtunning will tell you thatthe effort required to do so is worth it, those of us who put the effort into reading Joyce or Proust similarly think they worth it. Some may think it strange that we put such effort into reading Joyce or Proust: well, I happen to think it strange that some people put such effort into running! As Austen observed, one half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other! 🙂

      But certainly, I have found the pursuit of serious literature to be vastly rewarding, even though serious literature is not something that may be dipped into casually.

      I hope to see you around here,

      Cheers,
      Himadri

      Reply

  4. Posted by Erika W. on April 25, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    I am thrilled to have a 9 year old grand-daughter who also needs to read. She lives in a small rural town in Central Texas and is lucky to have the local public library in short walking distance. Those who need to read will usually find a way–she now helps at this library at weekends and was issued an adult ticket as a special privilege. In his early teens my own son posed as a despiser of books but would read every magazine that he could lay his hands on. He didn’t suspect that our subscriptions to History Today, Natural History and Texas highways were bought with him in mind.

    Reply

    • All teenagers rebel in some way or other against their parents’ values: it’s part of growing up. But it’s surprising how frequently they revert to their parents’ values in later life!

      The modern world tends, I think, to discourage reading: this is something I have ranted about on various posts, so I’ll refrain from doing so here. But I do feel that a bookish atmosphere is as good an atmosphere as any for a child to grow up in. it is astonishing how much can be absorbed – even unconsciously, just by osmosis!

      Reply

  5. Hello Himadri. Thanks for another very interesting post! I agree with pinkbambi, that being well-read is about literary curiosity, rather than having read the requisite tomes by Homer et al. There’s a lot of snobbery surrounding reading (see this article by Harry Mount, which amused me, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3641959/Our-reverence-for-books-is-ludicrous.html); I think being an inquisitive, and acquisitive, reader is what is important. In his wonderful book, ‘How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read’, Professor Pierre Bayard argues that “real readers” are those people who know there is a whole wealth of books out there to be discovered, while also acknowledging that they may not have time to read them all in their lifetime (I feel like this about the piano’s repertoire as well!). Thus, I no longer feel I have missed out, or “failed” in some way because I never finished Ulysses (I know what it is about and could talk about it at a dinner party!), or that I have yet to discover Dickens. It is wonderful to know that these books are waiting to be discovered. Meanwhile, at the moment, I’m reading Christopher Isherwood, an author who I first encountered in my teens, and short stories by Chekhov. After that, some modern American fiction perhaps, or maybe A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe, for my bookclub…..

    Reply

    • Hello CEP, good to see you here again!

      I agree with you fully that one cannot come to grips with literature to any degree at all without having an intellectual curiosity. And inevitably, one has to accept that there will always be much of tremendous value on that one will miss out on: art is long but life is short, as they say. But in my experience, I think I have come across more inverted snobbery than the “right-way-up” variety when it comes to literature: I can’t remember ever coming across anyone who thinks Homer or Joyce are requisite reading – i.e. that one has to read them, or that one is inadequate if one hasn’t; but I have come across many who think that people who have read and who claim to enjoy Homer or Joyce are merely poseurs, wishing to show off.

      I have heard of Pierre Bayard’s book ‘How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read’, and decided that the best way to honour that book is to talk about it without having read it! 🙂 I must admit, though, that I don’t really get the point. Why pretend to have read Joyce when you haven’t? What’s the point? It’s surely as foolish and as pointless as my pretending to have run the London marathon when I haven’t (and especially when, given my lack of sporting prowess, I couldn’t even if I wanted to!)

      I must confess that I do have a reverence for books. I am now sitting in my favourite room – my library, surrounded on all sides by my books, collected over several decades. And yes, I love it. I love being able to pick up and to look through those books that have meant so much to me over so many years, that have yielded to me such unfathomable riches. And there are some books there as well that I haven’t yet read, but which I fully intend to. Of course, as you say, I have to accept that there is much I will never get round to reading: I am not a great reader of history, say, and it is unlikely that I will read through all those tomes of history that are on my wife’s shelves: but when it comes to fiction and drama and poetry, I want to read as much as I can of the best there is – because this is what I love. I most certainly intend tackling, say, Dante or Boccaccio, or to read Homer again because I know I didn’t get enough out of the Iliad & the Odyssey at first reading. Why? Because I love serious literature. It has given me so much over the years.

      In the Telegraph article that you link to, Harry Mount advises us to “read a book that looks enjoyable – not worthy or impressive or heavy”. But this presupposes that books that are “worthy or impressive or heavy” cannot be “enjoyable”. Is this really the case? There are, of course, many different levels of enjoyment: I enjoy Sherlock Holmes stories, and I also enjoy the plays of Ibsen (which, I think, are worthy, impressive, and heavy – all at the same time!) But I enjoy them at such different levels and in such different ways, that I don’t know that that it is adequate to apply the same term (“enjoy”) to my response to both. The Sherlock Holmes stories I enjoy for their surface brilliance (and, indeed, the surface is so wonderfully brilliant that I really don’t care whether or not there is much below it); while, with the Ibsen plays, the surface itself isn’t that brilliant, and one has to take the time and the effort to look beyond it. And, in answer to Harry Mount, this is why it is sometimes worth while to persevere with certain books even though they may not appear particularly enticing at first glance: these are books where most if not all the substance lies below the surface, and which, as a consequence, demand deep immersion. It isn’t an adequate response to reject these books because it didn’t appeal at first glance, or after a mere hundred or so pages read casually on the beach.

      One may, of course, choose Don Quixote or Pride and Prejudice or Vanity Fair simply in order to show “I love literature” (although, as I keep saying, I really don’t know why anyone should want to make a show of loving literature in a society in which literary erudition isn’t much valued); but a more likely explanation for choosing Don Quixote or Pride and Prejudice or Vanity Fair is simply that that one actually loves them. And why shouldn’t one?

      I must confess that, of the books you mention you are reading, I haven’t read either Isherwood or Wolfe. I’d love to, of course: at the very least, I’m curious about them. Not reading them won’t, of course, meanthat I’ve “failed” in some way, but, as you rightly say, one should have the curiosity to get to know for one’s own self what it is that others so love about these works.

      The short stories of Chekhov, on the other hand, have been constant companions of mine since my teenage years, and I love them dearly. On my birthday a couple of months agom my wife recently presented me with a handsome 4-volume Folio edition set of Chekhov’s stories, so this summer could be devoted to reading them again. I can’t think of a summer better spent! Perhaps Harry Mount may consider me too reverent about literature – but how can I not feel reverence for something that has given me so much?

      Cheers for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

  6. Posted by Shonti Mukherjee on May 6, 2011 at 10:31 am

    “Well read,” can only ever be a relative term, obviously. I know people who consider me to be well-read and I know people who consider me to be quite laughably poorly read, especially for one who enjoys conversing about literature and art.

    I know people who have only a modest acquaintance with most of the works you have named but do have laudable skills of comprehension, interpretation and prescience. Conversely, I have listened to people who claim to be authoratative and have not always been impressed by their understanding, despite their breadth of knowledge. It’s a whirlpool really, I feel…

    The concept of being ‘well-read’ can be overall quite intimidating for many who may be earnest to explore the various fields and I don’t think it should be played too heavily whenever in debate or discussion because we should always try and encourage enthusiasm and, crucially, it is possible to be able to offer insight and fresh perspectives on any work without always requiring a great knowledge of other works…., er, praps.

    Reply

    • Absolutely – “well read” is a relative term. (That is, insofar as one can be absolute about declaring something to be “relative”…) But, having acknowledged this, the term should encompass, I think, both range of reading, and a depth of understanding. There is obviously little point in plouging through works of depth without absorbing at least some of that depth; but equally, the more one has read, the better one can view a work within a wider context. And that is important also.

      Of course, as someone who loves literature, I would love, as far as I am able, to encourage enthusiasm. But all fields of learning and knowledge are a bit intimidating to begin with, don’t you think? A first year undergraduate student of mathematics, say, or of economics, must inevitably feel at least a little intimidated by the level of knowledge and understanding of the learned professors of his university faculty. It can’t be helped.

      But it does seem to me that it’s not merely the neophyte who can feel intimidated. Often, it’s those who are most learned in an area who can feel most intimidated. I saw a brief interview lately with a Nobel Prize winner in physics, speaking about the posibility of discovering the Higgs boson; and when it was put to him that this discovery will solve all unanswered questions relating to the universe, he merely shook his head and laughed, and said if Newton was merely picking up seashells on the beach while the great ocean of knowledge was still unexplored, then we are really doing now is paddling tentatively in the shallows, merely ankle-deep. This most learned and brilliant of scientists perhaps feels more intimidated than you or I do, simply because he has a better understanding than we do of just how much we still do not know. It is the same in just about any field of learning. A learned person possibly feels more intimidated than the neophyte simply because this person has a better awareness of the sheer vastness of the subject.

      But to return to literature: of course, it’s not about ticking titles off a list. And as for being “well read”, it does seem to me that it is not a quality that is particularly valued in society. Well, be that as it may: contrary to what many appear to think, one pursues literature not to pose about it, but, rather, to experience the riches it has to offer. And I am really not sure how to encourage this pursuit: British schools, as far as I can see, aren’t doing a particularly good job in this respect.

      Reply

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