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What You Need to Know About Being Well-Read

It's a worthy but impossible goal

What does it really mean to be “well-read”?

No one actually knows.

The dictionary definition says,

“…a person knowledgeable and informed as a result of extensive reading.”

Okay. But knowledgeable about what? Could you have a person who is knowledgeable about hickory trees, and only hickory trees, be considered well-read? Even if she knew EVERY existing fact about hickory trees because of all the books she read about them?


To be “well-read” means to know a lot about multiple subjects because you’ve learned from multiple books in multiple genres about multiple time periods.

Amanda Nelson in a BookRiot blog probably had the best definition:

“–the term “well-read” has always had a hazy, nebulous character to me. It lies somewhere near “reads a lot of classics” and left of “knows about obscure authors I’ve never heard of, especially ones from other countries” and generally around “understands Everything in All The Books and therefore has something interesting to add to almost every conversation” and perhaps even “reads For Fun what most of us read For Guilt And Bragging Rights.”

To be well-read, rely on categories instead of lists of titles

Look on the internet, and you’ll find dozens of lists that tell you which books you need to read to be well-read. But there’s a problem. None of those lists are the same. Everyone has a different idea of what’s important.

Christina Hartman advises that being well-read is not about individual titles as much much as it is about categories of books.

If you want to be considered “well-read,” try this. Instead of checking off titles from someone’s pre-ordained list, create your own menu based on categories. Choose books from a variety of genres, time periods, and countries. Read a few in each of these groups every year:

  • “Classics,” both Western and Non-Western

  • Dystopian

  • Science-Fiction and Fantasy

  • Immigrant Experience

  • Popular Fiction

  • Non-Fiction

To be well-read, feed your curiosity

If you want to gain some perspective, read this great article about being well-read in the Paris Review where a reader divulges that he grew up in a religious cult and knows nothing about books, but he wants to:

“I’m just a working-class guy trying to take part in the conversation that all the smart people are having. This brings me to my question:What books should I read? There are so many books out there worth reading, that I literally don’t know where to start.”

And John Jeremiah Sullivan responds:

“My only piece of advice before recommending some titles would be: don’t fall for the inferiority/superiority racket. We’re not on a ladder here. We’re on a web. Right now you’re experiencing a desire to become more aware of and sensitive to its other strands. That feeling you’re having is culture. Whatever feeds that, go with it. And never forget that well-educated people pretend to know on average at least two-thirds more books than they’ve actually read.”

We’re all pretenders when it comes to being well-read.

We can never know enough books, but we can fuel our fire. Cultivate our curiosity. “Whatever feeds that, go with it.” We can learn more about what’s available by following book blogs, reading reviews, and checking out sites like Publisher’s Weekly and Library Journal. And don’t forget that you can triple your reading time by listening to audiobooks.

If you want to be “well-read,” thank whoever made you that way

The desire to read probably came from someone you respect, maybe parents, a mentor, or a colleague who values reading.

Eudora Welty, the noted American fiction writer, credits her parents with her desire in her autobiography, One Writer’s Beginnings:

“I live in gratitude to my parents for initiating me — and as early as I begged for it, without keeping me waiting — into knowledge of the word, into reading and spelling, by way of the alphabet.”

Like Welty, my parents instilled the desire to read. Our house always had books. We went to the library often, browsing shelves and bringing home stacks to read. Even as teenagers, my sister and I would spend a geeky Saturday afternoon at the library — for fun — instead of going to the mall.

And it wasn’t just my parents. I owe a debt of gratitude to Martha Voll, the high school librarian who saw something in me that I didn’t recognize about myself. She recommended books for me out of the scope of normal high-school reading. In particular, she told me I should read Chiam Potok’s The Chosen and The Promise, a true stretch for a Midwestern girl who had never been exposed to the Jewish faith.

Miss Voll was one of the people who made me want to be well-read. She gave me a taste for stories outside my own little mud puddle.

Inspiring people to read is a precious gift. Thank whoever made you want to be “well-read.”

Being well-read might also depend on HOW you read

If you’re not putting aside some quality time to read, you might never be well-read. It’s hard to enjoy reading — or even to absorb enough of the plot — if you’re only reading a few minutes before you fall asleep each night.

Allow yourself the luxury of time to indulge in a book, an hour or two at a sitting. Immersing yourself in a book is a different experience than nibbling at it piecemeal.

In an essay in the New York Times, titled “Why You Should Start Binge-Reading Right Now,” Ben Dolnick describes the phenomenon like this:

“To that point, I’d been reading the book the way I usually read books, which is to say in five- or 10-minute snatches before bed. And I’d been more or less enjoying it — but I’d been enjoying it the way a person enjoys hors d’oeuvres at a cocktail party. Those cheese puffs are delicious; I just wish I could sit down with a plate of them.”

Being well-read implies that you like it well enough to devote time to it.

Understand that you can never read enough

If you ask someone, “What are you reading?” and they have a quick response, they may be a contender for the “well-read” badge.

But people who love books and reading and desire to be “well-read” know that it’s a goal that can’t be achieved.

In today’s world, between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books are published each year, and that’s just in the United States. About half of those are self-published. Even if you confine yourself to the traditionally published works, hundreds of thousands of books are waiting to be read.

Try as hard as you might…

“If you’re a truly well-read person, you’ll never feel well-read.” — Christina Hartman

No matter how many books you read, no matter how many categories you explore, no matter how much quality time you spend, you can never read enough to be well-read.

Just don’t stop trying. EVER.

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