Alchemical Thoughts

A few thoughts on the notion of being “well-read”

Posted on: July 27, 2012

I originally wrote this out in my personal journal a couple of weeks ago. It was inspired by Amanda Nelson’s blog post over at Book Riot on the topic of “What Does it Mean to be Well Read.” As a reader, I usually don’t give a hoot about this kind of discussion, which I think often becomes a snob exercise for some readers to feel superior to others. But the post did make me think a bit and reflect on how I view reading. So, as I reflected, I did a little writing, and this is what I wrote. To go along with this, I will suggest to my four readers that they may want to read my other recent post on “There is a Big Reason Why I Read.” It goes a bit more on why I read, especially as a librarian.

* * * * *

I’ve always considered myself relatively well-read given I strive to read a balance of fiction and nonfiction. And while I stick mostly to some genres, I will venture outside those once in a while. I’ve read a good number of U.S. and international classics. Plus, I can certainly talk intelligently about what I’ve read. So, by some definitions, I am well-read. I don’t brag about it (the most showing off I might do about what I read are my annual compilations of what I’ve read in a year, and I do that mostly for fun and to look back on a previous year). I sure as hell am not a snob about it. As I’ve stated before in other places, including this blog, I read what I want when I want. If it happens to be diverse, then that is a happy side effect.

I will disagree with some that you have to read classics and literary fiction to be well-read. If the definition of “well-read” includes being able to speak intelligently about classics and literary fiction, then there are ways to get around that. I am not saying you can completely skip the classics and literary fiction. I think some exposure to them is healthy. However, given the various available shortcuts, you can easily bluff your way in this regard. In other words, read some classics and literary fiction for a balanced education. Read more of them if you like them, but you should not feel obligated. There are plenty of genre fiction and nonfiction books that are as good, as challenging, etc., in some cases superior to any “classic” or “literary fiction” work. The snobs often hate to admit that, but as both a reader and a librarian I can tell you that is a solid truth.

In the end, don’t be a snob. Read what moves you. Read what you like. Sure, explore here and there, but don’t do it because “it’s good for you” or some snob tells you to “take your medicine.” Reading should not be an experience akin to swallowing castor oil. Let the snobs do that if they like it so much.

I guess in the end I am saying to find your reading bliss. Take a risk now and then, but do so because you want to, because you are curious, because you’d like to experience something new. Don’t do it because some guru or pundit makes you feel guilty. Who knows? Maybe in the end the concept itself of being “well-read” is overrated, especially when it is used to beat others over the head like it’s a club. There are other ways to encourage readers to diversify their reading diet past their quota of 200 paranormal romances (I pulled that example from Ms. Nelson’s post, but I could have instead brought up some of the dystopian military scifi stuff I read now and then, which to me, does not seem terribly dystopian. Then again, I do like my dark in my science fiction). Beating people over the head with the nagging of “you need to be more well-read” is not the way to do it. Offer samples, bits and pieces here and there, and see what happens.

This may be where a good librarian trained in Reader’s Advisory can help. One tool at our disposal is the read-a-like list. So, you like paranormal romances? Find “classics” with similar appeal factors to offer the reader. That probably goes further than just telling someone to read other things so they can be “well-read.”

The bottom line for me is I personally worry little about the label. I don’t think someone is less of a reader if they are not “well-read.” At any rate, anyone out there need a little help in building their “well-read” cred (I am trademarking that phrase, by the way, haha!), feel free to ask your local, friendly librarian.

And keep on reading.

P.S. Anyone really wants to know what I read? The link to my GoodReads profile is on the right column of this blog. Hop on over and look over my shelves. I think I can back up what I preach, though there are always more books to discover. Then again, that discovery is part of the fun, would you folks not agree?

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