I read a lot. I read quite a lot. And I consider myself a big fan of books. But I’m here to tell you the two aren’t mutually exclusive. You don’t have to be some speed-reading super-bookworm to be enjoy the simple pleasure of a good read.
Usually when someone tells me they “don’t read all that much” or they’re “not much of a book person,” they say it almost like they’re ashamed. There’s this tacit assumption I might be judging them for not being more well-read (which I try not to, although I know I haven’t succeeded in the past). To be fair, it’s a similar situation with TV shows and movies, as well, where there is so much content out there and we all feel like we are constantly catching up on what everyone else has already enjoyed.
But I think the feeling you get when you haven’t read Between the World and Me, or A Room of One’s Own, can be more severe than the feeling of not having seen the latest season of X or the next instalment in the Y Cinematic Universe. Books—whether novels, memoirs, biographies, poetry, etc.—still have this association with intelligence, wisdom, and even class status. Being “well-read” is still a synonym for “learned” or “cultured,” so thinking you don’t stack up next to someone who has read more books than you is an exercise in lessening your own worth.
But not having read Emma or The Makioka Sisters doesn’t make you unintelligent or less valuable than the person who has. Reading can help us grow our mental faculties, including knowledge, problem-solving skills, and empathy, but you don’t automatically become a better person because you finished War and Peace.
And oftentimes, people who consider themselves “well-read” can be a bit… aggressive about it. Anytime I say or post about a book I’ve enjoyed, most of the responses are gigantic To-Do Lists of ever other book by the same author or in the same genre I also have to read right away, what are you doing, go buy these books right now, go!!!
People who have read We Should All Be Feminists or The Year of Magical Thinking love to talk about these books (and why wouldn’t you?), but that need to discourse can so easily turn into a need to show-off. People who consider themselves well-read have a tendency to inundate others with all the books they’ve read or get into some kind of pissing contest over who’s read the most.
And honestly, I find this extremely annoying. If books are supposed to help us cultivate experience, imagination, and compassion, then why are we using books as weapons to make ourselves feel superior? Again, I’m including myself in here, because I’ve definitely fallen into this trap time and time again.
The problem with this attitude is that it can be alienating to the people who just haven’t read as many books. Everyone knows it’s good to read a lot, but feeling like you’re already at a disadvantage compared to your seemingly well-educated friends is disheartening and can even act as a barrier to reading even a single piece of literature.
If my stack of books to-read gets too high, I feel overwhelmed and will either start and stop several of them or never start any of them. It’s so much worse if you feel like you have read enough books and anyone you would go to in order to get a good recommendation treats you like you’re such a dumb-dumb for not having cracked as many spines as them.
So I’m saying this: if you have read a lot, that’s great. Really, that’s wonderful, keep it up! If you haven’t, that’s not a bad thing. It’s nothing to be ashamed of and it doesn’t make you an unintelligent person, no matter what some people posting commenting on social media posts or talking too-loudly in bars will tell you. You should read A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, or The Bloody Chamber, or A Good Man is Hard to Find, or Fangirl when you can, please do, it’s so incredibly worth it! But don’t feel like you have to check off every book on the “1,001 things to read before you die or whatever” lists. Find a good book, one that interests you, and start there.
And look, this is coming from someone who earlier professed to have read “quite a lot”: the quantity of books you read is not even remotely as important as the quality. Try to find a book that is famous for being challenging and take a crack at it. Or find something that is really enjoyable to read even though the plot didn’t interest you at first. But don’t feel off-put by self-professed well-read know-it-alls (like me) because, in truth, we don’t know it all.
We still have so much to learn and even though we’ve read all these tons of books (you can’t see it, but I’m gesturing wildly at my bookshelves), that doesn’t make us wiser. There are things that you will find in All Quiet on the Western Front, or Beloved, or A Tale for the Time Being, or Ceremony, or even that hulking behemoth Moby-Dick that I completely missed.
And don’t feel like you have to keep up with those crazy speed-readers out there, either. Find a pace that works for you and your life. And find some quality stuff worth reading (this website is chock full of them!). It’s totally OK if you don’t read a whole lot. Just don’t stop reading.