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?