What It Means to Be Well Read Today

women-readingI’ve been told a handful of times that I’m well read.

I almost react the same way every time: credulously humble followed immediately by immutable denial. Personally I don’t think I read enough to be crowned the title.

I used to think only a select few such as scholars, professors, or librarians fit the definition. They are, after all, usually walled in by books where the smell of parchment is potent. This somehow made sense to me at a time. I thought that our careers were these symbiotic, identifying agents in our lives (shelving away that idea in workaholics anonymous section.)

Their career certainly provides them access to a copious amount of books, but the reality is: most people don’t like to take their work home with them if they can help it. Down time, so to speak.

After arduous hours of parsing through old century text or having to read the new crime thriller for your patrons, maybe what they grab isn’t War and Peace but a Harlequin novel, which is fine, but by a generalized definition, it’s not what we picture as being a well-read person. Turns out, being ‘well read’ is a hodgepodge of opinions with arbitrary standards—at best.

The definition is pervasive and often ambiguous in terms of being applicable to a living person. Lists are generated every day of the books you should read before you die (a bit dramatic, but hey, this is serious.) When analyzing some of these lists, we’ll notice most of them are contrived, supplemented by renowned critics or celebrities presumed to be the leading authority on books, thus, burgeoning an elitist mentality that possibly only deters readers’ interests in these books.

Although many lists include Classics, the criteria is changing and becoming more contextual; we’re beginning to redefine what it means to be well read in terms of popularity and pop-culture. Even though a book’s likeability has played a part in a book’s success, there are several books when they were initially released that were disregarded only for these books to be recognized later on; however, even books that were lauded as masterful were still not immediately considered something beyond just being a really good book. Time acts as a buffer for us, but this is not the case anymore. We’re seeing the opposite with books skyrocketing into fame. We’re speeding past the mulling process. New lists are suggesting more contemporary fiction like Games of Thrones and Harry Potter, books celebrated in mainstream culture that have created a cult-base frenzy of readership/viewership. And while I’m more agreeable with a having an egalitarian voice and less stringent standards, I have to wonder if reading post-contemporary novels, reading essentially best-seller books, is enough to be regarded as a well-read person?

Then again, this all depends on your interpretation.

There’s no universal definition of what it means to be well read. It’s a combination of mixed interpretations and understandings to what supposedly fulfills the obscure requirements. Some suggests it’s widely reading across a number of genres or reading books not as well known. Others believe it is being well-versed in Classics and in other significant pieces of literature. The model of being well read is moot and mostly based around the values and views of a person or a group. This creates even further complications when you consider factors such as the paucity of feminine, diverse, and LGBT works of literature. The market is provincially saturated by white men and has been for decades. I’m not suggesting that we stop reading books written by white men; however, the inclusion and promotion of these other groups shouldn’t be overlooked or neglected for whatever reason or nefarious agenda people are enacting.

On the other hand, the definition of being well read is also versatile and adapts to the times. It’s increasingly apparent that the form and accessibility of communication is significant and morphs our ideas of what we might consider well read. Those people logging in hours and sifting through their newsfeed, as if they were a spinning wheel, could be considered by the broad definition to be well read. They’re absorbing extensive knowledge quickly due partially to how the media distributes information and how everyone is constantly wired to the internet. This non-stop circulation of information not only affects how we process information but how we identify a well-read person.

We’ve cultivated in our minds what we believe a well-read person is and have strived to reach these standards. Like a headache, it can feel like we’ll never reach that place where the thrumming ends, not while we continue to punch out new books and already have an innumerable amount of books on our lists to read.

As for me, I’ve sort of learned to be conscious of it but not allow it to dictate my reading choices. I like keeping an open mind and branching out and experimenting with different genres, but even I have my ‘picky-eater’ moments.

Certainly it’s good to try something different once in a while, but don’t feel like you have to. Hours of time and energy spent on something your heart isn’t into is a waste of time, and I’m pretty sure is some kind of autonomous torture device. Don’t do that to yourself.

Know what you’re reading. Read what you love.

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