Well Read? Or Not Well Read? #MondayBlogs

Elodea (RIP) posing on one of my smaller bookcases.

Elodea (RIP) posing on one of my smaller bookcases.

My husband and I have a lot of books.  Mine are mostly fiction; his are nonfiction (environment, politics, history).  I often think of my husband as better read than myself although he rarely reads fiction.  On the other hand, my girlfriend and I can dominate a social gathering with our discussion of our favorite fiction authors.  But, it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve really taken up with reading contemporary authors.  My journey has been odd but interesting.

When I was (much) younger and there was only the one-room library up the road for my summer reading adventures, I had only what that small room could offer.  I remember reading Hans Christian Anderson and being both drawn to and repulsed by his stories.  I also remember wanting to change the ending of his stories.  As I got older, I grabbed more of the hard-cover books because they made me feel like a grown-up.  Or I would sit in the magazine alcove and leaf through old issues of Vogue and Elle magazines.  In the last summer of my teens I read D.H. Lawrence, Anais Nin, Henry Miller, and  . . . Albert Speer.  I think I even tried to read The Gulag Archipelago.  I have a vivid memory of reclining on a lounge chair in my neighbor’s yard, sunbathing, while awkwardly holding open a very thick paperback copy of Solzhenitsyn’s book.

It was a strange summer.

And for the next 20 years as I drifted in and out of college classes and between degrees and jobs, I read the classics:  Shakespeare (totally lost on me when I was in high school), Dickens, Austen, Eliot (George and T.S.), the Brontes, Woolf, Forster, Ford, Donne, Pope, … there was a time when I could recite every author/poet/essayist that I read or was assigned to read.  I’ve since forgotten most of them.

After leaving college and applying myself to the work-a-day world, my reading shifted more to magazines:  The Nation, Harper’s, The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic.  Periodicals from which I could read an essay or short fiction as my last mental exercise before going to bed.  [Note: I’ve been a magazine subscriber for over 30 years. While I was in college, however, those magazines often just piled up while I tried to finish the next day’s reading assignment.]

Since I’ve been seriously writing again (or writing seriously), I’ve started reading contemporary authors, as in authors who are still alive.  They’re not dead.  They might not be white.  And most of them are decidedly not male.  Joan Didion, Barbara Kingsolver, Louise Penny, Elizabeth Wein, Robert Galbraith (sorry, he’s a she), Val McDermid, Joyce Carol Oates (I have a love-hate relationship with that woman). All my life I’ve leaned toward women authors, but that’s another blog post.

I have no doubt that many of you could spout off a list of books/authors you’ve read that is twice or ten times as long as mine.  My list isn’t exhaustive.  I would have to get up off my ass and go to my bookcases to remind myself the books I’ve read or intend to read.  I don’t feel like doing that right now.

I used to feel self-conscious about either my lack of “well” reading or my inability to remember everything I’ve read.  But then I read this essay in Harper’s by John CrowleyOn Not Being Well Read (sorry, you need to be a subscriber to read the whole thing.)  Mr. Crowley has a reading history not much different from mine, in that it wasn’t perfectly linear with an early and long immersion in classic literature.  He muses about the idea of being “well read” or “widely read” or “much read.”  He discusses a book I’ve never heard of, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, but notes that your interest in following the lessons of this book may have more to do with “your need for approval from yourself and others.”  Crowley has the opposite problem.  While he acknowledges that he has “surely forgotten more of the books [he’s] read than remembered,” he still remembers a lot and some of what he remembers is esoteric enough that he gives the “impression” [his italics] of being well read.  He also discusses the fact that not everyone reads every book in its entirety.  [Look for discussions on Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and you get the idea that a great many more readers probably don’t finish as many books as we think they do.]

But what I really appreciated about Crowley’s essay is that in the end, it doesn’t matter.  Having books is it’s own joy.

“But now that I am in my eighth decade, my seventh of devoted reading, isn’t it perhaps time to correct my lacks, to make myself whole, as the legal phrase would have it? As I write, I have in view a lot of the books I would ask myself to take up; they’ve been there for years, they move with me from house to house.  Like many people who have a lot of books on shelves, I have had casual visitors ask if I’ve really read them all, in a tone that might suggest wonderment, or suspicion of pretense. And of course I haven’t read them all.  Many are there just because I haven’t read them: because I want, or once wanted, to read them, or at least consult them. They are books I’d like to have inside as well as outside.”

So you, dear Reader, how do you fare with the reading of books?  Do you consider yourself well read?  What does “well read” mean to you?  And, finally, for this is very true of me, do you have books on your shelves you haven’t read but that you keep just because?

43 thoughts on “Well Read? Or Not Well Read? #MondayBlogs

  1. I have so many books on my shelves that I have bought purely for the pleasure of owning them, but I am not especially well-read, or widely read. I read a lot – most of the time. But at the same time, I think I read more books in January and February than I did the entire year I was actively writing Changelings! Books are a comfort for me, but I don’t always have to crack the pages – just that they exist in my environment makes me very happy! 🙂 Great post, Marie!

    • Thanks, Katie! I’m like you. I just like having books around. At one point in my life I thought about becoming a librarian just so I could spend my days around books. You know, I really wish I had done that. I love libraries. It’s hard for me to both work on my writing and read other people’s writing. Just not enough hours in the day. When I retire … 😉

  2. I agree with Andra.
    I consider myself an eclectic reader. I read poetry, picture books, devotionals, middle grade fiction, YA fiction, graphic novels, adult novels, nonfiction, classic novels, early nineteenth century British fiction; Regency British fiction; Chinese mythology. I read what I want to read. I try not to let the bestseller lists dictate what I will read. Instead, I often reread books I own.

    • Wow. Every book is fair game for you and that’s wonderful! I’ve sort of dabbled in a variety of genres, but I tend to drift back to crime fiction and literary fiction. I don’t go by bestseller lists either. I think a long time ago, i might have, but that was before the internet and self-publishing and all that. But also once I find an author I like, I tend to read everything that person wrote. I actually shop according to author which can be pretty restricting.

  3. I agree with John’s comment above. Increasingly, I’m reading undiscovered authors and out-of-the-limelight stories. Since there must be a billion books by now, I don’t know how anyone can consider him-or-herself “well read.” I won’t read a fraction of them before I’m gone, but I am a reader. I’m always reading something.
    As to having books “just because,” that’s MTM’s territory. We have bookcases full of architecture books, because it’s a rule that architects own pretty books they never intend to read.

    • My husband finally gave up some of his early engineering books and textbooks he accumulated during his university days 😉 Every so often we try to pare down, but we also buy more … especially when I get a discount coupon from B&N. I read a fair amount of indie published works, but I still have some favorites who are traditionally published and I’ll never let them go as long as they keep writing. I enjoy them too much.

  4. I read every day but have decided that I will only read books by authors with which I have some personal contact. Life is too short to read the rich and famous. They don’t need or appreciate my eyeballs.

    • Yeah, I’ve gotten more selective as I’ve gotten older (and no longer have to read based on assignments), but there’s still plenty of books by traditionally published authors that I want to read. Not all of them are rich and famous; most of them still have day jobs, or at least the infrequent teaching job to help pay the mortgage. But I learn a lot about writing by reading their work and I get a lot of pleasure out of it too.

  5. I guess I read quite a lot! My tastes have probably grown over the years as well – 6-year-old German kids’ books aside 😉 I’m currently having a little love-in with Haruki Murakami – such a beautiful writer 🙂

    • I imagine you have some interesting tastes in books, given the places you’ve lived. Then again, how long did you live in Latvia? Just kidding 😉 I just fell in love with Barbara Kingsolver. I know she’s been around for a long time, and I think I used to read essays by her in some magazines, but I never read any of her novels until recently. The Poisonwood Bible totally blew my mind. She wrote about the Congo in such a way that I felt I was actually there. I’ve seen Murakami at my local bookstore and been sorely tempted to pick up one of his novels. Any one you would recommend?

      • I’m reading Norwegian Wood at the moment which is fantastic, but I don’t remember ever being disappointed by any of this books! I don’t think I’ve read Kingsolver, must check her out!

  6. I like to think I’m well-read, but it seems like there’s always some major work I’ve managed to miss (or avoid!). More and more I’m a selective reader, since time seems shorter and shorter for some reason. And yes… one day I’ll get to that boxed Proust I’ve been carrying around for decades! 📚

    • Given what I’ve read on and off your blog, I would consider you “well read.” But as in Crowley’s essay, the shortening of time makes us perhaps more selective in what we do read. In his case, to the point where if he had only one book he could read, it would be one from his childhood, a book that gave him great pleasure. I’ve also missed out on a lot of really great books and I’m trying to make up for it now. I think that’s why the idea of “well read” was intriguing to me. I have lots of books, many of which I haven’t read (yet), and it makes some people think I must be well read. But then there’s my husband who reads stuff I would never think of reading on my own, but once he starts talking about it, well, then there’s another book to add to my growing list. I’ll probably still be adding books when I’m on my death bed 😉

      • Me too. And I think Crowley’s right about re-reading stuff that really hit you when you were younger. I’m gazing at my old Thomas Hardy novels even as we speak…

        • Did you see that post from Interesting Literature on Thomas Hardy novels? Brought back a memory of when I first read Tess (roughly 1979). I was driving cross-country from CA to NY with a friend and we stopped in Ontario for a bit. We went into a used bookstore and my friend found a small hardcover of Tess. He handed it to me and just said, “I think you’ll like this.” I did and I still have that book.

          • I did see that. Not sure I totally agree with the ranking, but I loved seeing all those familiar titles. I went through a huge Hardy phase when I was in England, which was when The Mayor of Casterbridge was out as a miniseries. Hardy was HUGE at the time! 😉 Then, of course, came Nastassja Kinski as Tess, and I was hooked for life.

  7. Interesting that you wanted to change the ending to Hans Christian Anderson’s stories… because Disney did! 😆

    Honestly, I don’t think most people would consider myself well read, because when you have a book diet consisting of mostly science fiction and fantasy, it isn’t the healthiest. 😀

    I think that would be it for me, well read isn’t necessarily having read all the classics and such, it’s more of moderation in all things. So you read a variety of genres rather than over indulging one in particular. That’s not to say you don’t have a favorite genre, but you keep open mind into reading something outside it — instead of excluding books because they are not in your preferred genre.

    • Well, Brad, I wouldn’t undersell yourself. These days there’s good reason for readers to prefer science fiction and fantasy over reality 😉 I do lean toward the idea that being “well read” could simply mean having read a variety of work. And I guess I have since I’ve got about 50 years of reading under my belt :). But I don’t read just for the sake of reading, at least not generally. If I have a particularly long wait at my doctor’s office, I might read solely to pass the time, but most of the time I read because I’m drawn into a story or an essay. It’s for pleasure, primarily.

      • Right, yeah, I read for pleasure too. I think what I mean is I know some people who will refuse to read something because it is not in their genre of choice and I think that is sad. I feel like to be well read isn’t about the number or the variety per se, it’s about being open minded to reading things that might be outside the comfort zone.

        • Since I’ve been online, I’ve enjoyed more different genres. That’s been a real upside. Like I wouldn’t normally pick up a young adult historical novel like Katie Sullivan’s. But because I met her online, I read her novel and am so glad I did! But, as is typical with me, I probably won’t pick up another young adult historical novel … unless it’s written by Katie Sullivan 😉

          • Yeah, definitely not my normal type of reading either. I used to read a bit of Young Adult and it was pretty fun but eventually I got bored of it, lol

    • Ha ha! I never read Pet Sematary, but saw the movie. One of my favorites 🙂 I find it interesting (and validating) that people will read books and then forget them. That’s happens to me unless I actually take notes or write in margins. While in college, I was always writing about the books I read. Now that I don’t have to do that anymore, it seems I have a harder time retaining what I’ve read. No so much with fiction. A good story will stay with me for a long time, but nonfiction, especially technical work, just leaks through my brain as if it were a sieve ;(

  8. In junior high, I read every Nat. Geo. ever published. I was a book nerd and read as many classics as I could all through high school. Then life got in the way. For the next twenty years all I read were texts and medical professional journals. I considered myself well read and educated. (I recall my grandmother and her sisters referring to people as, “Not well educated, but very well read.) I got divorced in 96, and for the next decade read nothing, absolutely nothing, and I forgot a lot of what I had previously read. I can recall titles, but not content. I’ve only started seriously reading again in the past few years. My husband reads two or three books each week and I can’t begin to keep up with him, but he doesn’t remember what he has read by the time he is halfway through the next book (Which sometimes causes him to buy books he’s already read, and he won’t know until he’s half through the book, and then he’s like, “I’ve already read this!”). I consider my husband well read, but he doesn’t, because he only reads crime fiction for escapism. I guess, in some ways, I’m more well read than him because I read a variety. Then again, I can discuss it immediately, but can’t recall it a month later. Maybe that’s just old age. HA!

  9. I wouldn’t say I am well-read, but I’ve done a fair amount of reading, and the authors I like are pretty equally spread between the sexes as far as I can recall. Funnily enough, regarding Shakespeare, I think a lot of people find him mannered and unfathomable at school, but in later years can dip into a text or play and just wonder how a guy in such an age could have that amazing subtlety of understanding about man’s circumstances and his nature.

    • Hi, Peter! I agree with you about Shakespeare. Of course I had to read Shakespeare in high school and when I worked on my undergraduate, I had roughly five classes in two years that required reading Shakespeare (and one class was all about Shakespeare). Part of it was fun, but I felt like I had OD’d on Will by the end of the two years and for a long time didn’t even want to hear his name 😉 Still, his work is indeed timeless, and I do now appreciate his work more than ever.

  10. I consider myself to be well read – I read a wide variety of books (and a lot of them). I tend to read more fiction because that is what relaxes me. But I also read quite a bit of non-fiction for my job – but that doesn’t relax me because it is required reading. I can talk intelligently about a lot of popular books – but next month I tend to forget about what I’ve read. I think that is because I read so much and my brain doesn’t like clutter 🙂

    • Pamela, your comment made me smile because one of the points in the essay I mentioned, the one by Crowley, he says that he’s probably forgotten more books than he remembers. If I had to define “well read,” I think it would be along the lines of having read a variety of work. At least that’s what always sticks in my mind when I hear the phrase being used. And in that case, many if not most of us are well read. Just if only we could remember what we read 😉

  11. I read a lot, Marie. If I could find a job where I got paid to read, I’d be leaping out of bed to get to work. 🙂 Like you, I read a lot of fiction and a lot of craft books on writing.
    When Derek and I compete in Jeopardy each night, I don’t consider myself “well read.” Derek never reads books, but reads newspapers and National Geographic from cover to cover. Most of the time, he beats me in Jeopardy, unless the category is fictional characters or law. 🙂

    • Oh, my goodness, I used to watch Jeopardy all the time 🙂 You and Derek are good examples of what I was “musing” about in my post. The label “well read” really doesn’t mean much outside the person using it. You both read a lot, just different media, but then doesn’t that make conversations interesting? While it’s fun for me and my girlfriend to talk about the books we’ve both read, there’s a lot of history/science/politics I wouldn’t be much aware of if Greg didn’t prefer nonfiction. A lot of the books I want to read are ones that he’s read and that sound interesting to me. If I only had the time … 😉

      • That’s the problem, Marie…never enough time. 🙁 We love watching Jeopardy. That’s one thing we always make time for. We live such an exciting life. ha ha! 🙂

        • My husband and I think our lives are exciting but nobody else does 😉 I talk to my mom about every two weeks and even then I usually say, “nothing new up here” 🙂

  12. I don’t consider myself well read at all, but I could probably debate many books I haven’t read because I’ve read reviews or have overheard other people talking about them. I also work in libraries so am surrounded by books and readers most days. I used to want to be widely read and wanted to learn from reading, but now that I’m older and work full time and find life more stressful I tend to just look for escapism in what I read – it’s a shame I guess. There have been times I’ve rejected a new book in favour of something I’ve read before because I just don’t want to make the effort of exploring something new and possibly difficult or disapointing! The good thing about being older though is I feel no need to read to impress others, I read to please myself and no longer think twice about getting a tacky paperback out of my bag in public.


    • Thanks for your comment, Zoe. That’s basically what I got from Crowley’s essay. Maybe being “well read” meant something when we were younger, but as we get older, who cares? Life is short so read what you want. A good book can be re-read many times, and maybe you find something new every time you re-read. I read a lot of book reviews too. Some, like those published in the New York Review of Books often leave me feeling like I just read the book itself. Kind of like cheating, but I think everyone does that to some extent: talk about books they haven’t read as if they have read them. Still makes for interesting conversations 😉

  13. I never liked the term ‘well read’. Some people I knew in college used the term as a sign of being smarter than those of us that weren’t reading as much. I’m a very slow reader since I’m always writing, watching TV, wrangling a kid, or trying to be active. Heck, it’s taking me over a year to get through the book I’m reading now. So by the definition I knew as a student, I’m not ‘well read’ at all. Most of my library has been unread by me and I keep the books in case I make the time to get through them. Yet I always wander to something newer when the time comes.

    Anyway, I’ve always seem reading as a relaxing, fun activity and never cared if I remembered everything. It was for that moment of peace and escapism. Again, I’m working off a rather snobby definition of ‘well read’.

    • I think that’s part of it: we tend to think of “well read” as having read all the classics as well as every new book out there. I think that was part of Crowley’s point. It means different things to different people and basically is meaningless. I’m a slow reader too and I miss those days when I could just sit for a few hours and read. I don’t get very far when I have only 30 mins to an hour 😉

      • How would anybody get anything else done if they read all of that? They’d put on as much weight as someone binge watching television. 🙂

        I have the same time period. 30 minutes to an hour depending on the little guy. I tried to read more last week while he played, but he refused to let me read without running interference.

        • lol … that is one thing about reading I don’t like … it’s so sedentary. And I can’t read on a stationary bike or treadmill. That’s one reason I picked up audiobooks. At least then I can go for a walk or do housework and still “read.” Do you think once your boy gets older, you’ll have more reading time because he’ll be reading … or doing homework?

          • I never got into audiobooks. I tried, but I could never tell if the thing was pronouncing words correctly. Downside to being really into fantasy. I think he’ll give me time to read when he gets older. I might still be sitting down to do homework with him though. At least from the look of Common Core because I’ll need to figure it out too.

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