When Are You Considered “Well-Read”?

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As I was reading Anna Karenina the other day, I suddenly had a thought that when I finish the book, I will be one step closer to being deemed “well-read.”  But then I thought about all the other works I would still have to read to carry this esteemed title.

The list of authors whose works one should read seems never ending: Homer, Virgil, Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekov, Wilde, Beckett, Austen, the Brontës, Dickens, Joyce, Orwell, Twain, Faulkner, Hawthorne, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Dumas, Verne, Hugo, Camus, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, de Cervantes, and Garcia Marquez.  Even this list barely scratches the surface of the great canon of epic poetry, theater, and literature.

However, in order to be well-read, is it really necessary to have read, for example, Great Expectations?  Or Ulysses?  Or Anna Karenina, for that matter?  Common sense would scream yes because these are deemed great works that have stood the test of time.

But there’s also a school of thought that says you must simply read – a lot – to be well-read.  Of course, you should read some of the canon, but maybe you can skip a few books here and there.  There’s something to this argument as well, for only focusing on the canon would be limiting in its own way.

Whatever the case, there is still a lot to read in order to be well-read.  I once took a course that focused on the works of Samuel Beckett, but we discussed other works as well.  The professor would often reference works and ask the class if we’d read them, and more often than not, the answer was no.  One day, the professor looked at us and said, “How exciting it must be for you guys.  There’s still so much left for you to read.”  That one idea made me understand how much there is to read out there and made me wonder if I’d ever get to read even a fraction of it.

Given the vast number of works that exist, maybe, indeed, you can be well-read without having read Anna Karenina.  Regardless, I’ll still feel closer to being well-read when I finish it.

What are your thoughts?  Are there certain works you think one has to read in order to be well-read?

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8 thoughts on “When Are You Considered “Well-Read”?

  1. think that some of the canon labeled as the goal for being considered “well read” should be explored. I’ve read several of the names you listed, but there are others that I want to read. Not because I feel like I have to, but I have a genuine curiosity. However, I would hate to be restricted to reading only those kinds of books because I like to read a lot of other things.

  2. Twenty-five years into this reading business, I’d consider myself reasonably well read, easily having a more than passing familiarity with the greater part of your lists, however, looking back, there were so many books I needn’t have read but did. Read what you love, I’d say, never out of obligation. If something seems like too much work by half way, leave it; if it’s a must read, you’ll return to it when YOU are ready.
    Here’s my take on: Great Expectations, good, but dated; Ulysses, God, don’t get me going, absolutely top shelf, but not exactly for all that Bloom crap the rank and file fall over themselves to repeat (Joseph Campbell ((a genuine Towering Giant)) wrote amazing stuff on Joyce); Anna Karenina, super stuff too.
    Damn, now I’m hogging space. As J.C. would say, and I’m sure you’ve heard it, follow your bliss, in life and definitely in books too.
    Have fun, it’s your life!

    • Thank you so much for your thoughts! I’m usually not one to abandon a book halfway through, but I do like your idea of putting it down and picking up when I feel ready. I’ll keep your words in mind when I finally get around to reading Great Expectations and Ulysses.

  3. I think there’s something to be said in favor of contemporary writing as well. I see what you mean about the classics – the thought of everything I hadn’t read is both exciting and despairing – but there’s something fun about reading sub-canon (or pre-canon?) stuff. Some contemporary authors are already praised and it’s interesting to read them and try to judge for yourself whether or not they will be as relevant fifty – or a hundred – or five hudred years from now…

    • Thank you for the comment, and I agree with your thoughts. I personally find that it’s hard to keep up with contemporary writers while I’m working through the classics, though it’s an area I definitely want to read more of in the future.

  4. I’d like to consider myself well read, if not in literature as a whole then at least in the genres that I frequent. Out of the authors you listed, I’ve read works by maybe a third of them (mostly in school). I pick up some of the classics from time to time, but I mostly read genre fiction, specifically Fantasy and Science Fiction.

    There are several authors that you mentioned that I’ve read some work of that I have no desire to ever read again. I personally don’t care for Shakespeare at all, and I absolutely hated Great Expectations and will probably never read anything else by him.

    I haven’t read all of the classical authors that you mentioned, and I probably will never read some of them. I love the line from your professor, there is so much out there to read. I’m not going to read something that doesn’t interest me just because “it’s a classic.”

    • Thanks for stopping by again! I agree with you in most respects. I’d at least like to give the authors I haven’t read on my list a try, but like you, if I don’t like something, I’m not likely to continue reading their works.

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