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!