It seems as though being well read doesn’t mean what it used to mean.
Well read used to imply that a person had read their fair share of the classics. It meant that they could probably discuss the writings of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Twain, Hawthorne, Salinger, Steinbeck, Rand, et al. It also could imply their familiarity with great poets like Shakespeare, Cummings, Eliot, Browning, Shelley, Donne, Alighieri and Yeats.
We are well read in the classics during school since the books are selected by our teachers. These works are part of the literary canon and are, therefore, ‘required reading.’ But what happens when we start to select for ourselves and make our own choices?
For a while when I was traveling a lot, it seemed like every book I purchased came from an airport gift shop. The books offered in the airport are hardly a random sampling. They don’t have a vast selection, so, of course, they are pushing bestsellers.
Well read seems to be taking on another form in the last thirty years. One of my friends is a doctor and incredibly well read when it comes to medical journals. She is a prolific academic and has committed at least 10% of the Bible to memory. However, she can’t tell A Midsummer Night’s Dream from Hamlet. Another friend has a commanding knowledge of history, cooking, psychology, politics, current events, biology, business, exercise and nutrition. She hasn’t read a work of fiction since high school.
In the last few years, movie watching has become an intellectual activity (no complaints here), and that’s another form of being well read. Many movies at one point were books. One of my friends can pass any movie trivia test you put in front of him, even if it spans back to the 20’s. However, he can’t be bothered to read anything more intensive than a magazine.
Before television, before radio, before movies, before the internet, people found their entertainment in books and plays. We now have many more media portals for entertainment. It’s not just about reading literature and fiction; it’s about reading anything. Someone’s interest and education might be highly specialized, or it may be extremely broad and varied.
Although there have been a lot of changes to what constitutes well read, one thing remains constant. Being well read in today’s world may just mean educating oneself well – and frequently.
If you were to create a list of books that you consider required reading, what titles would you include?