If you ask fifty people how to be well-read, you will get fifty different answers.
I know–if you’re here because you want an answer to that question, it’s incredibly unhelpful to lead with that. I have to say it, though, because it’s true: most people have a different opinion of what being well-read means. To some, being well-read means being versed in the classic foundations of literature. To others, being well-read means reading a lot of books, full stop. Merriam-Webster defines “well-read” as “well-informed or deeply versed through reading” and Dictionary.com defines it as “having read extensively,” but none of that tells you what you need to read to achieve this goal.
I think where we get tripped up with this phrase is the “well” segment. It’s a quality judgment–just not read but well-read. The modifier of “well” could go a couple of different ways. “Well-known” means widely-known, so you could go with widely-read as a synonym. Well-mannered, well-mixed, or well-meaning uses “well” to indicate the goodness of the manners or the intentions, so well-read could mean that your level of being read is good or that you are thoroughly read.
The latter interpretation makes “well-read” trickier to define. It requires constructing quality parameters that “widely-read” doesn’t require, and that’s where people can get into arguments about what it means to be well-read because not everyone agrees on what collection of work qualifies as good enough to bump you from “read” to “well-read.” You could go with the Literary Establishment(TM), but that’s problematic: for centuries, the voices of people of color and women have been systematically less likely to be invited to this party. Because we now know that this is the case and that PoC and women aren’t intrinsically less good at writing, using the stacked deck of traditional “well-read” ideals means that we’re lacking work that should be in there. That makes us not well-read, in this case.
You could then try expanding your list to include literature by people of color and women (which I totally suggest doing regardless of any goal to be well-read). Then you might recall that many “well-read” lists skew toward American or UK literature, so you’d want to add plenty of international literature, as well. Wait, though–is it fair to only speak of this in terms of literature? What about non-literary fiction? Can you be well-read if you ignore a huge sector of the publishing industry? So you start adding genres to your list, and y’all, there are so many, each with their own “greatest hits” lists that will be examined by these exact same parameters. Hey, also though, where does nonfiction come into all this?
I’m beginning to think that “well-read” doesn’t have a generally-accepted finish line that you can definitively cross.
When I was looking up “well-read”, Google definitions offered me a possible way out of this conundrum. In an example sentence for the term, Google suggested that you could be well-read in a particular subject. So, you can be well-read in African-American literary fiction. Or you can be well-read in post-modernist poetry. Or you can be well-read in romance. Or you can be well-read in all of these things at once. By picking what you want to be well-read in, you can define what well-read means to you.
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’m not entirely sure that I ever want to cross that finish line anyway, to be honest. What happens when I’ve achieved “well-read”? Do I just stop reading?
Yeah, right. I don’t think so.
Instead of defining “well-read”, I want to undefine it. And undermine it. And .. I ran out of rhymes, which is why I am not a musician or a poet, but you get the idea. 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.
Tell me: in what areas are you well-read? In what areas would you like to be?