Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Meaning of Well Read

There are a great wealth of blogs that talk about books and there are even more readers. 'Well read' is a phrase that is thrown around by anyone who thinks they read more than the average person.

What does it mean to be well read?

How does one become well read? Do you have to read the complete works of Beckett, Proust, and Camus? Does it mean you have to read as many works by women as men? In as many other languages as in English?

Perhaps it means you have to read in all genres and time periods of literary history. Is there a list of books that make one well read? What of the reader that endlessly devours romance novels or biographies and nothing else; as opposed to the reader that picks and chooses from all genres but reads at a much slower rate; are either well read?

Are there benefits to achieving the status? Do these perceived benefits have any practical application; could they be gleaned in any other way?

I'd love to call out a select few pretentious literary bloggers out there for their answers, but I've never been one for name calling.

So what in your mind makes someone well read and what--if any--is the value of such an achievement?


Terry Weyna said...

Interesting point, Chad. I don't consider myself well-read -- I'm more like a mile wide and an inch deep in any genre of literature you might want to choose (including mainstream). Others have referred to me that way, but I think they're mostly referring to the fact that I read a lot.

I guess it comes down to something like this: I've probably read well over 100 books each year since I was six years old. I'm now 53, so, using the lower number, that means I've read at least 4,700 books. That doesn't seem like much, especially when I consider that my home library contains a good 12,000 books or so. If I never bought another book, I'd have plenty to read for the rest of my life. In the meantime, though, they'll be publishing at least 150 books each year that I want to read.

So how does one judge whether another -- or even oneself -- is "well-read"?

Chad Hull said...

At the pace of one hundred books a year you are being rather modest with the, "mile wide inch deep" comment. To me, that's a lot of reading.

I probably do about four books a month, and I didn't take an interest in reading until about ten years ago. I'm not sure what well read means, but I do raise an eyebrow at the people who bestow the title on themselves.

If I had to venture an answer as to what well read is, I would say it is a combination of diversity of genres, quantity, and a general appearance of quality.

I don't have enough confidence to express an answer any more specific than that.

Terry Weyna said...

See, I figure if I haven't read Elliott's Middlemarch, I don't get to say I'm well-read. Or any Tolstoy at all. Or Flaubert. And that's the mainstream stuff.

In SF/F/H, I'm always coming up against something that "everyone" has read that I haven't -- like Lud-in-the-Mist! Or Little Big by John Crowley (I tried once and got bogged down).

Same with mysteries. There are just too many. I'm sitting in the mystery room right now (which is also my study), and I see hundreds of books I haven't read yet, including many in series that I love or by authors I enjoy. So many books! So little time!

Chad Hull said...

The comment about, "The Mystery Room," made me laugh out loud for some reason. I'm wondering if all rooms of your home have equally badass names and speculating as to what they could be.

As to Tolstoy, if you like Jane Austin you owe it to yourself to read his books. Recently I conquered War and Peace and Anna Karenina. My only advice: don't read the introductions or anything else; start reading at page one, and research your translation.

I think Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are pretty close to perfect. Not to sound nerdy but you don't want to read 1,200 pages of a supposed classic only to later learn it's full of errors.

I've been told by friends I trust when it comes to books, that Middlemarch is akin to a hernia: not lethal but not fun either, and Flaubert is 'literature's' best kept secret. I haven't read either, so it seems we are both behind.

Take the above for what it's worth; which as it's coming from me is not that much.

Terry Weyna said...

This house is jammed with books everywhere, but there is method to the madness. We keep all the SF/F/H in the bedroom (which seems appropriate to us for many reasons, not the least of which is that we met for the first time in person at the World Fantasy Convention 11 years ago). Fred's study has the poetry and the bulk of the nonfiction, especially including the literary criticism, appropriate to a scholar and college professor. The living room and dining room contain the fiction/literature, drama and art. The front hallway has the politics section. The upstairs hallway has the books on books and the graphic novels.

But wait, that's not all! The master bedroom closet is home to the SF/F/H anthologies and the Star Trek series (which my husband collects just for the fun of it). The upstairs hallway cabinets are filled with SF and mystery magazines of all stripes, as well as back issues of Locus. My window seat in my study has my immediate to-be-read stuff and my Sherlock Holmes collection. The linen closet has critical periodicals (NYRoB, for instance), though the NYTBR is on a pile on my study floor. The coat closet has a whole bunch of paperback fiction that doesn't fit on the shelves. And the closet in my study has the paperback mysteries, which don't fit on the six bookcases devoted to mysteries -- they're almost entirely hardcover first editions, believe it or not, collected mostly during a time in the mid-90's when I was making good money and had nothing else to spend it on (I lived in Omaha; 'nuff said).

As to Tolstoy -- I have a fair bunch of his work sitting around, but none of the newer translations. Hate to buy new copies, but I've heard that they're worth the investment. Thanks for confirming that tip.