It’s January (in case you were unaware) and that means it is once again time for New Year’s Resolutions. And for those of us who love to read that means book resolutions.
The interesting thing about January book resolutions is how it generates discussions not just about how many book a person wants to read but also about what kind of books that are going to be read in the coming year. Which centers around a quality question – what sort of books ought we to read? What book are qualitatively good? What books are important? What books are necessary to make one “well read.”
These questions are not so easy to answer. Susie Rodarme muses this question at length in her BookRiot post, “How to be Well Read”. I highly suggest reading this article, she deconstructs typical notions of being “well read” quite clearly and articulately, concluding that:
I know, that answer isn’t as easy as going through a list and ticking off boxes, though there are lists out there, if “well-read in this list of books” is what you want to tackle for your own well-read-ness (can I direct you to our Read Harder challenge for a start?). The main reason I wanted to put this maybe-unhelpful answer to this question out there is that I’ve hung around a lot of book spaces in the past where people use “well-read” as a way to keep other readers down and make themselves artificially elite. I’ve seen the term “well-read” used to keep the voices of people of color and women sidelined because they were of little interest to those striving to be traditionally well-read. I’ve seen those who think they have attained “well-read” status become stagnant and stop growing and seeking out new reading. I don’t think that it’s always necessarily a positive thing, to be “well-read” by someone else’s standards.
I think the underlying desires in wanting to be well-read are wanting to be accomplished and knowledgeable, so go out there and set some reading goals and accomplish them! You’ll pick up the knowledge along the way.
As much as I love her analysis and deconstruction of the “Literary Establishment” and its tendency to favor Western (esp. British/American) white, male authors, I still want to fight back a little bit.
Namely, I want to propose that despite the inherent problems of the typical notions of being “well read” there are also inherent virtues.
Let me give some background in my perspective. I have a liberal arts education in English literature. But more specifically I have focused my literary education around women’s literature as well as other marginalized literary expressions.
However, the honors college program I was a part of was a “Great Books Program.” This sort of program emphasizes critical engagement with primary texts….but these texts are only from the Western Literary Canon and are dominated by male authors.
So I’ve read Euclid ‘s Elements. I’ve read Homer, Aristotle, Aquinus, and Dante. I’ve read Enlightenment philosophers and romantic authors. But through this program I did not read The Epic of Gilgamesh or Confucius. I know nothing about the Middle Eastern mathematics tradition and little on African philosophy.
Despite the limits of a great books program I cannot underestimate the benefits I received. By being well read in the great books I am able to better understand why it is important to read outside the great books. Why diversifying my reading habits is so critical to my intellectual development.
Since I have read the great books I am better able to approach reading Nectar in a Sieve or So Long, A Letter. While some may argue that attempting to be traditionally well read stifles reading and causes a person to be elitist about what should be read, I have found that in being more well read I have recognized how “unwell read” I am. It has revealed to me how much more I need to read. How I need to read more African literature, more South American poetry, more Asian philosophy.
Perhaps I am aware of this in part because I spent so much of my studies in literature focused on marginalized literary voices, but I would like to argue that one who goes through the traditional great books becomes aware of how much more there is to read outside of the Western Canon. That to be truly well read is to recognize how much more there is to read and to use that knowledge to expand reading habits and to appreciate and grow by reading from a variety of perspectives.
Essentially, I would like to argue that the Western Canon is not the epitome of being well read, but only the tiniest baby step toward wider reading.
One piece of advice about reading that I received from a wise, old professor (who is probably the smartest person I know with the broadest and deepest knowledge base), was that I should diversify my reading. If I read a recent work, read an old work next. If I read something from the Western canon, choose something Eastern for my next read. If I choose fiction consider a non-fiction work next.
Now his suggestion did not mean I couldn’t read five Russian literary works all in a row in order to truly immerse myself in Russian literature. Instead, his advice is to thoughtfully choose what I read, to always be aware of what I am not reading. That way, when my Russian literature phase is over, instead of moving to German literature I will consider reading South American drama or non-fiction from African writers.
To be well read in my perspective is to be critically and thoughtfully read. To be able to hold conversation about a wide range of works and perspectives – even those you have not read, because you have the base knowledge needed to understand that both breadth and depth are important in reading and it is important to learn from both canon and marginalized works.