I’ve seen many discussions of what it means to be “well-read,” and I believe I’ve even commented on one or two. There rarely seems to be any universal consensus—breadth vs. depth, the “canon” (usually western) vs. increased international familiarity. I honestly can’t remember what I may have said in the past, but today I am willing to put down my final answer, which is almost certainly a revision of anything I’ve said before.
To be well-read is to read well. It has nothing to do with what I actually read, only with how I read.
What then, is “reading well?” Reading well is to come to as complete an understanding as possible of the material at hand. A truly great book will offer something new each time it is read, no matter how often it is read, and so a final understanding may never come, but the attempt can always be made.
This definition in part has to do with my recent acknowledgement that I will almost certainly never get to every book I wish to read. It’s just not possible. (Especially since my current reading rate + probable life span gives me only about 240 books left to read. Must work on that…) That doesn’t mean I’m not going to stop creating lists, that I’m not going to continue to daydream about all the books I want to read. It means that I know I will miss out on some really good books, but that I don’t have to stress about it or worry about it. This is just the way things are. (OK, OK, I’m still going to try for every book on my list. Sometimes that idealistic streak kicks in…)
NPR’s Linda Holmes posted an article earlier this week relating to this topic. She went so far as to provide sample calculations explaining why no one—not even the most voracious reader—will actually read all the books they may wish to read (or see all the movies or watch all the TV). The possible responses to this limitation? A choice between “culling” or “surrender.”
As Holmes notes, many people currently seem to be choosing culling. Understandably so—it is easy enough to decide that the “best” solution is to choose to only read the best and greatest or to set aside a whole category completely. The problem I see here is how such differentiation is made. It seems as if a day doesn’t go by that I don’t see a new debate on this topic. We can’t even come to 100% agreement on what “classic” means, much less how we should address contemporary works or works by marginalized groups.
Which is why I have chosen—even before reading the article—to go with surrender: the acknowledgement that I won’t have time to get to everything, that I may be missing something, but that this is okay.
How does this relate to being “well-read?” According to Holmes:
If ‘well-read’ means ‘not missing anything,’ then nobody has a chance. If ‘well-read’ means ‘making a genuine effort to explore thoughtfully,’ then yes, we can all be well-read. But what we’ve seen is always going to be a very small cup dipped out of a very big ocean, and turning your back on the ocean to stare into the cup can’t change that.
By acknowledging that I won’t have time to get to everything, I allow myself to take the time to read what I do read well, or at least as well as it merits. By choosing surrender rather than culling I acknowledge that there may be a lot out there that is good or great that I will probably miss, rather than claiming that anything that I haven’t selected must not be as good. By choosing surrender I give myself the freedom to reread, as I feel compelled to, or as the books require. My reading is a lifetime path, a lifetime plan. And I can make it whatever I want it to be, even knowing that I may be missing things.