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What Does It Mean To Be “Well Read?”

Someone recently told me I was “well read,” which I find interesting. The whole reason I started 101 Books was because I felt like I wasn’t “well read” enough, whatever that means.

So now that I’ve read nearly 70 books in four years, am I well read all of the sudden?

Seriously? That’s all it takes–70 books in four years?

According to Google, 129 million books have been published in the history of the history. 129 million!

Now, I’m no math guy. In fact, I suck at math. But even I know that 70 out of 129 million is a pretty small number. It’s actually .00000054263566 to be exact. I don’t even know what that number is except that it’s a tiny, tiny, tiny bit larger than zero.

Look, guys, I’m not well read. In fact, I suck at being well read–at least if you’re judging by quantity of books.

So what does it mean to be well read?

In my estimation, I believe it has very little to do with the quantity of books you read. Would you say a Harlequin addict is well read? Probably not.

I believe it’s all about the diversity in your reading choices.

Someone who only reads nonfiction is not well-read. I’m looking at you nonfiction snobs. And someone who only reads Stephen King novels isn’t well read either.

But what if you only read fiction without ever dabbling in nonfiction…are you “well read?” Probably not.

Anyway, that’s my interpretation. Over the course of my life, I’ve read a great deal of both nonfiction and fiction–so maybe I’m closer to being well read than I think. Although, obviously, the last 4 years have been all fiction.

So are you “well read?” How do you define it?

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64 Comments Post a comment
  1. Choosing a book to read is like choosing a friend. If you hang with fools, you may become a fool.

    In my opinion, read anything for your enjoyment or interest whatever, only do not read a book written by a fool.

    Regards and good will blogging

    Like

    February 21, 2014
  2. As i was reading this… A movement in my lips was starting… Halfway, a smile is forming… Until i reached the last word at the end of this article, i am beaming! you know the kind of smile reaching from ear to other ear, eyes as chinky as a chinese doll.. Haha! with all my hearts content, i do believe im a big fan of reading, now that uve said diversity, i can tell myself im well-read. Jumping from genre to other, classic to
    popular, fic to non-fic, recommended or researched, any book is just as good to me. yes, i cannot like all the books ive read, but at least i got to know them. Thats the least i can do.

    Liked by 1 person

    February 21, 2014
  3. This is an interesting question – I definitely think that it’s based on variety and quality (with a bit of quantity thrown in). Like you, I’m always aiming to improve my reading but sometimes I have to give in to my whims, rather than read what I think I *should* be reading.

    Like

    February 21, 2014
    • Yes! I’m definitely going to be more “whimsical” when this project is over.

      Like

      February 23, 2014
  4. I definitely like your definition of well-read. I think it a person needs to read both fiction and nonfiction. I think it also means the person has read many of the classics.

    Like

    February 21, 2014
  5. Well said!

    Like

    February 21, 2014
  6. Sam #

    I think that there are a few classic fiction books that if a person has read them, they’re more inclined to be labeled ‘well read.’ However, I strongly agree that a person needs to have a breadth to their literary resume, counting fiction and non-fiction across a variety of genres and topics. If you have done that, then you’re able to relate things that happen in your life to books you’ve read and I think that’s when someone is well read. If you’re speaking to a friend and can say, “Well, I read XXX book by YYY and in that something similar happened and the effects were…” I believe that makes a person well read.

    Not sure this helps, but it’s my definition.

    Like

    February 21, 2014
  7. Reblogged this on iconobaptist and commented:
    I will add to this that I tremble in fear when I see someone who never reads a book of any type try to start a blog. There is something about having read many well-crafted sentences (in a rich literary tradition) over the course of one’s life that singularly equips one to write.

    Like

    February 21, 2014
    • I agree. Personally speaking, I take issue with people I consider to be “Book Snobs.” By which I mean those that look down on others because their preferred genres don’t fit into some preconcieved notion of what is considered, by some at least, to be worthy reading.

      Yes, I do think it’s important for one’s own sake to read a wide range of genres over the course if their lives. Especially if, as you say, they want to start blogging, BUT let me qualify that by adding that it also depends on the type of blog in question.

      Years ago, I belonged to an online book club where the majority of members were much younger than I am and most were university students. Most of them were mature enough to realize the world did not revolve around them and they were not experts in literature, or anything else for that matter.

      Howevever, every so often, one or two would join and before long gleefully pounce on other member’s posts with the assumptions that:

      A) The victim of their insulting tirade had never read anything more in-depth than “Watch Spot Run,” and that…

      B) The target surely had nothing of value to contribute to such an esteemed and “educated” group such as our little forum.

      These particular brats also felt that anyone younger that 17 or 18 were surely too clueless and lacking in life experience, that they they should just leave unless and until, they had a few years of “real education” under their belts. And anyone over 30 was definitely so out of touch with the times, we should just take our walkers and go back to the old folks homes from which we had, apparently, escaped.

      I wasn’t always the among the first to yank these arrogant twits up short, as their own peers were usually very quick to corral them. But due to a lifetime battle with chronic insomnia, I did catch a few of them… And I’m not above admitting I had more than a bit of fun giving them a much needed education they hadn’t picked up in their classes!

      Regardless of who dealt with them though, most came around, ate generous helpings of Humble pie, and became great forum members. Sadly, a few just turned tail and ran. I’ve always hoped that those who didn’t stick around, did some growing up and had an attitude adjustment by the time they hit the “real” world.

      Wordsgood

      Like

      February 22, 2014
      • I forgot to mention what I meant by the type of blog.

        If it’s a sales blog, like say, the ones who love to spam the rest of us by “Following” ours, but never actually reading or contributing in any way, then I don’t suppose it matters much what they’ve read so long as they have their speil down pat for anyone who might actually want to inquire about their product.

        And for personal blogs that are more like diaries in a public venue, I don’t think it much matters how well read the author is.

        Wordsgood

        Like

        February 22, 2014
  8. I think the definition to well-read is my mother. She reads a LOT, and has been doing so for a very long time. She reads some of everything. When there is a conversation going on she always knows something about it and has something intelligent to say, because I think she must have read at least something about almost everything. Someday I would like to be as well-read as her. It’s a big job and I’m not even close yet,, but I’m working on it.

    Like

    February 21, 2014
  9. An interesting question…what does it mean to be well-read? I usually try to come up with my own definitions, but I’ll fall back on the Free Dictionary, “having read widely and intelligently; erudite.”

    Three key words there: “widely, intelligently, and erudite.” I try to do all of those things. Widely means exactly what you pointed out, that if you only read one, or several, genres, you are not well-read. If all you read are Harlequin, you are not reading intelligently. If you don’t reflect on what you read, you can’t qualify for intelligent or erudite. I tend to shy away from the erudite label because it smacks of snobbery.

    I also think that if you only read books; you don’t qualify for well-read. One must read all types of material: newspapers, web sites, blogs, et al. If you bury yourself only in books, the connection with the “real world” becomes tenuous. Being well-read is more a state of mind than a physical, or quantifiable state.

    My two cents.

    Keep up the great work.

    Like

    February 21, 2014
  10. Mrs. C Writes #

    I have read over 150 books in seven months…. but unless you want to discuss angels with the ability to influence your actions, alpha male bad-boys that always save the damsel in distress, dystopian worlds where children are forced to fight to the death for survival, or foul-mouth bikers with a penchant for violence and women then I’ll probably not your girl!

    I read…. a lot! But I am certainly not well-read. I define well-read as some other’s have: as a person that has a breadth of knowledge and information about a wide range of topics and issues. I think one can only achieve that through reading a vastly diverse amount of material: fiction, non-fiction, newspapers/reports, scholarly articles and so on. And actually I think I would tend to align being well-read more so with non-fiction material.

    I have studied most of my life – a degree in psychology and a Master’s degree in youth work, and I currently studying a Level 2 course in counselling, but again I do not think my academic background makes me well-read. I have particular interests that I hone in on. Perhaps this makes me zoned-read? Or honed-read?

    Food for thought…

    Like

    February 21, 2014
  11. Mrs. C Writes #

    Reblogged this on Mrs C Writes's Blog and commented:
    As someone who reads… a lot! Food for thought, perhaps?

    Like

    February 21, 2014
  12. Lucille #

    Like others here, I agree that finding a link in a literary work to one’s own life is a valid definition of “well-read.” But I would also include an ability do a little deconstruction, to have some understanding of the sociopolitical settings of the work. What was going on in the worlds or writers like Mary Shelley,Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and Ralph Ellison to produce their work? What were the dictates for social interaction and marriage in Austin’s day? Was there concern about censorship that gave rise to Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451? What was the understanding of the criminal mind when Dostoyevsky penned Crime and Punishment? Too just read a work and not understand the world and mind from which it was drawn misses much of the story.

    Like

    February 21, 2014
  13. I started my reading project because I also thought I wasn’t very well-read, but I have to agree that to become well-read you have to be reading a diverse range of books and genres. I started out only reading classic literature and focusing on my list of 100, but felt limited as a reader. This year I’m trying to branch out a bit more by reading more contemporary fiction and hopefully some non-fiction too, and I think going in this direction will help me become more well-read. Since you have been thinking about this lately, will you alter your reading plan or stick to your list?

    Like

    February 21, 2014
    • Oh, definitely going to stick to the list and finish this. After that, I don’t know what I’ll do but I believe the blog will live on.

      Like

      February 23, 2014
  14. Kshitij Rawat #

    I agree with your definition. A guy who reads different genres and does not focus on a single one, can be called “well-read”. I actually use the term, well-read, for books. Any book, which I’ve read so much and for so long and for so many times begins to have a worn-out sort of look–the bindings come apart and pages become smudged, etc. THAT is what I call “well-read”

    Like

    February 21, 2014
  15. February 14 has come and gone. The young, the old and even the toddlers claimed to be celebrating love. On that very day, a couple of individuals either wore red clothes or had a touch of red on their attire. A question that comes to mind seven days after St. Valentine’s day is” what is the colour of love?” It is not unusual for humans to associate colours with certain elements or characters. white is associated with ‘holiness’, ‘red’depicts danger etc . If this is true for these elements and characters; then love should have a colour. What do you think?

    Like

    February 21, 2014
  16. hvvjakumar #

    Nice one 🙂

    Like

    February 21, 2014
  17. That’s a great definition of being well read! I like to try and read a bit of everything – it keeps reading interesting! x

    Like

    February 21, 2014
  18. I agree with you about diversity. “Well read” implies a healthy range of quality reading.

    Like

    February 21, 2014
  19. Reblogged this on Zombie-Haunted Libraries and commented:
    Well-read and well-bred: this often has to do with class more than anything else. But I like this blogger’s redefinition of “well-read” as a statement of the diversity of your reading material. Under that definition, a dedicated bookworm becomes a kind of general practitioner: they have seen examples of many different things. Some qualification might be needed here, though, as there are also readers who devour everything within a particular genre or within particular parameters they themselves have unconsciously defined. There may be bookworms out there that are rather like neurosurgeons: they scalpel their way deeply through science fiction, and they are highly specialized readers; they will not be able to discuss mystery novels with you, just as a neurosurgeon probably will not be your best choice of dentist. I’ll have to ponder this. What do YOU think it means to be “well-read”?

    Stant

    Like

    February 21, 2014
  20. Reblogged this on Autumn Stay, the Rest Can Go..

    Like

    February 21, 2014
  21. I think you’re right that cross-genre and cross-category reading is essential to being well-read, but I’d also add the caveat that being well-read is a process, not a permanent condition. I think it’s something that readers work toward in their own ways. I read voraciously (that’s why I call the blog “An Omnivorous Reader’s Commonplace Book”), but I can think of many, many areas in which I could be better-read: literature of Africa, nineteenth-century drama, Asian political history, St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, history of science and mathematics, Norse mythology, detective fiction . . .

    I think it’s certainly possible to be well-read in a certain subject area or genre, but to be well-read, period? Almost impossible.

    Like

    February 21, 2014
  22. I recall hearing that Bill Clinton read a book a week, even during his presidency. I consider Clinton to be well-read. Here’s a NYTimes article from 1992 on his reading habits:

    http://www.nytimes.com/1992/12/10/books/books-books-and-more-books-clinton-an-omnivorous-reader.html

    That is my dream. But my aspirations far surpass actuals in my life. I am not well-read. Although, I am happy that I took a “classics” seminar in grad school. Otherwise, I would never have read The Iliad, The Odyssey, and the Aeniad. And happy I took the Joyce class so I could read Ulysses with some direction. Other than that, I can only claim to be someone who loves books and good writing.

    Like

    February 21, 2014
    • The James Joyce class I took in college in which we read Ulysses with direction was one of the best (and most difficult) classes I took.

      Like

      February 23, 2014
      • Yes, the prof I had for Joyce was nicknamed “The Zimmenator” for being fairly demanding. His last name was really Zimmerman. But I enjoyed the work, and I will always be grateful for having made it through.

        Like

        February 23, 2014
  23. You can consider yourself well read when you recognize that reading Stephen King and staring at a test pattern on the television are similar activities with the advantage that the test pattern will eventually transmogrify into the Farm Report but Stephen King will always be the same waste of time. Otherwise, it’s all fiction!

    So worrying about reading fiction versus non-fiction is a fool’s errand. You might, however, stop and consider how much of your reading is from countries and in languages unfamiliar to you? Ezra Pound spoke of translation being the heart of English literature but there’s still a huge benefit to reading a text in the original language.

    Reading in more than one language might even be a requirement for being considered well-read.

    Like

    February 21, 2014
    • Interesting thought. Though I don’t know how willing I am to learn another language, I’d agree that reading books from other countries factors into this.

      Like

      February 23, 2014
      • It is embarrassing to see how people around the world know two, three, or more languages, but not here. I have always seen the US insistence that others learn to speak OUR language as a prime example of American Exceptionalism … exceptionally self-centered.

        Nowadays with the internet and electronic teaching tools there really is no excuse. Besides, when you read in an unfamiliar language, even so-so books impart a sense of accomplishment that is good for your psyche.
        .

        Like

        February 23, 2014
  24. I think “well read” is very subjective and depends on who is saying it about whom. If I met a Norwegian, for example, they would consider me very poorly read, since I know nothing about Norwegian literature, even in translation (though I do know Roald Dahl’s parents were Norwegian and I’ve read lots of his books!).
    Being well read is also about how much you retain about the books you’ve read: I know people who just read because they like to pass the time that way, but they don’t even remember the titles or authors after finishing the book, they just move on to the next. So perhaps writing this blog makes you “well read” because you discuss and analyse the books.

    Like

    February 21, 2014
  25. Champagne for the merciless #

    As long as they know who Stavrogin is, where is Macondo, how Yossarian survived, what is going on in Tortilla Flat, why McMurphy did what he did and why the heck Henry Miller and D. H. Lawrence were banned.. yeah, I find the person well read if we can talk all about it…:)

    Like

    February 21, 2014
  26. I think being on the verge of graduating with an English degree, I’ve realised I’m nowhere near “well-read” because I’ve now been exposed to a variety of different writing styles, written in different times with different concerns. But at the same time, I don’t think “well read” can be defined because the reason we have all these books is because we will only like some.

    Like

    February 21, 2014
  27. ❤ Johnathan Franzen! Have you read Jennifer Egan?

    Like

    February 21, 2014
  28. Reblogged this on Rosevoc2's Blog.

    Like

    February 21, 2014
  29. Have you read Howard Jacobson’s _Zoo Time_? I just picked it up at the library. If you have not… you must read.

    Like

    February 21, 2014
  30. “Well read” to me means that you are willing to jump between different genres of books. That you are an avid bibliophile. And sure, I think an avid harlequin junkie can be a well read person too, as long as the occasionally read other genres. 🙂 P.S. my blog name, “A Well Read Woman”. Lmaoooooo 😉

    Like

    February 21, 2014
  31. This is actually really interesting.
    I have never thought about it. I agree with you on the definition of “well-read”, after all, someone who you would say “likes” to read is not someone who only reads one gender of books.
    I suppose that is the same thing for a TV series fan, isn’t it? But of course, they will always have another concept.

    Like

    February 21, 2014
  32. danielfbowman #

    Well-read has to do with variety, that’s right/ But I think it also has to do with recognition. For example, if I read all sorts of self-published books that no one else has heard of, I will not seem well read.
    Do you think someone could “be” well read by simply knowing ABOUT the books? What if you only read Cliff’s notes? You can discuss the books without ever having read them.
    Or what about the abridged versions for kids? They lack the mastery of the language, but they tell the story. Is that enough?

    Like

    February 22, 2014
  33. Emily #

    Reblogged this on Life in the Electron Orbital and commented:
    I like the way this fellow blogger takes on the question. I hope all of you enjoy it as much as I did!

    Like

    February 22, 2014
  34. thisportraitingray #

    Reblogged this on This Portrait in Gray.

    Like

    February 22, 2014
  35. Aside from my comments in reply to Mary Gardner Martin’s reply to this post, I would like to add what I believe echos a few other people that have commented.

    Many people, myself included, tend to go through phases in their reading. They may do what I did for a lot of years and read nothing but fiction whenever possible. It wasn’t that I was unware of local or global events, it was that I needed that escape into fantasy worlds to keep me, well, sane. Then I spent several more years reading almost nothing but non-fiction and became a news junkie while I was at it. I am finally starting to settle into a nice blend of all three.

    But I have no doubt that I will again have phases where I consume one genre and even one sub-genre, with little else thrown in until I’ve glutted my own tolerance with it. Because reading for me, as it is for many others, is not just a desire, or a way to understand things, it’s both a compulsion and a tool.

    The compulsion being that I have been happily addicted to reading since I first learned how. It’s a tool because not only does it help me learn the things I want and need to know, reading is also my ticket to see and explore all the places, people and cultures I will never see, meet or experience. My books and other written mediums are my friends and my confidantes. Even when I do find myself arguing with the text! 🙂

    Above all, reading helps me cope with the unplesant and painful realities of my life, while also giving me some often needed perspective.

    Wordsgood

    Like

    February 22, 2014
  36. Variety is key. After all, people say you are well rounded if you are knowledgeable about multiple things, so to be well read, you would have to read multiple genres.

    Like

    February 22, 2014
  37. Reblogged this on mira prabhu and commented:
    Robert brings up an interesting point — do you consider yourself well-read? This is such a crazy question for me…and I speak as an Indian educated in the so-called British system. We are given to understand that well-read means reading the western world’s best fiction, non-fiction and of course the classics — but this is all just brainwashing… today i realize I have no need to be “well-read” other than as a social lubricant — so I can make intelligent-sounding small talk or look good in the eyes of others….it is all a mountain of trivia — unless the process of educating myself has led also to the cultivation of wisdom and compassion….what do you think?

    Like

    February 22, 2014
  38. Hi mira, enjoyed reading this. When I was a teenager and avid reader, still am, I realised that it would be impossible in my lifetime to read all the books ever published, and that was 50 years ago. My guess would be that more have been published in the last 50 years that all the other put together.

    I consider myself well read, I read virtually anything……….apart from pulp fiction. Anything else is grist for the mill, I read to understand the human condition. I read to get a sense of the changing collective consciousness. In this context old books are just as interesting as newer ones, lets one track the changes……..so I’ll always be a reader and the only criterion that I follow about what to read is ‘does it interest me?’

    Like

    February 22, 2014
  39. Good post. “Well read” is such a subjective term. Well read compared to what? “In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” So in the company of those who have read no books – if I have read just one book – am I “Well read” or just “Better read”?

    I think ultimately, well-read is just a compliment by someone who feels that your reading experience surpasses theirs in terms of either volume or variety.

    Enjoy the compliment and keep enjoying your reading.

    Like

    February 23, 2014
    • Thanks Toby. I agree. It’s a relative term, but it’s a thought provoking exercise to try and define it as well.

      Like

      February 23, 2014
  40. I like your definition of “well-read.” I certainly think diversity is a key component. As for myself, I think I’m really only well-read in comparison with and context of most of the people around me – family, friends, co-workers, etc. I read more extensively and broadly than anyone I know offline…but nowhere near as extensively or broadly as many people I’ve encountered online. Most everyone I know insists I’m well-read, but that is largely because they rarely or never read, or they stick to one fairly narrow genre for their reading. So I suppose I seem relatively well-read to them in this context.

    I think “well-read” is largely a relative term. Personally, I am in the process of becoming more well-read than I currently am; I will always, barring unforeseen impediments, be engaged in this process. So again, this is relative. I am more well-read at 40 than I was at 20, and I certainly hope I’ll be more well-read at 60 than I am now.

    I do try to read broadly and with an open mind, pushing myself outside my bookish comfort zones, reading classics, short stories, “literary” works, genre fiction, experimental stuff, lots of translations, graphic novels, nonfiction, biographies, the occasional YA. I approach literature much as I do food: unless I’ve found myself to be allergic or absolutely averse to an ingredient, I will try with gusto almost anything. I am a happy eater – happy that I am possessed of an inquisitive, curious and experimental palate, as I feel I have been enriched by exploring a wide variety of cuisines. The same sort of attitude towards reading makes me a happy reader.

    At the risk of sounding overly glib or trite, at the end of the metaphorical day, I’m less interested in being well-read than I am in reading well.

    Thanks for an excellent, thought-provoking post!

    Like

    February 23, 2014
    • “I’m less interested in being well-read than I am in reading well.”

      The last few days I have been musing over the the idea of READING. Are we concerned for the physical activity of reading (you have undoubtedly heard of the avid reader who, over breakfast, devours every word on the box of Cheerios) or is the concern for the type of reading that is being done?

      I am going to think about this further and will probably report on the painful results of my brain exercise in the silliest way possible over on my own weblog. So think along with me … why do we read?

      Like

      February 23, 2014
      • Great thoughts! Let us know what you decide.

        Like

        February 23, 2014
  41. Reblogged this on Petriary.

    Like

    February 23, 2014
  42. Reblogged this on My Little Life.

    Like

    February 23, 2014
  43. mlf0 #

    I never think of myself as “well read.” Most of my reading is for personal enjoyment or a nonfiction subject that I am interested in. In my opinion, a “well read” reader has read important foundational texts that are difficult to read and require much thought to fully comprehend. Some seem to be able to do that without much problem and are well versed on many varieties of classic literature, but this is always too laborious for me and I end up quitting and falling back on some sort of popular fiction.

    Like

    February 23, 2014
    • You reminded me of David Denby’s excursion into the Great Books. It is probably reasonable to suggest that all or most of the acknowledged “foundational texts” should be a requirement for this topic of being “well-read.” After all, can anyone qualify who hasn’t read the canonical works by such as Plato, Shakespeare, Molière, Goethe, Wordsworth, Tolstoy, Dickens, Joyce, Beckett?

      And yes, many important works of literature are a challenge to read but that is how we keep our brains from turning into Cream of Wheat as we age.

      (But remember, all work and no popular fiction makes Jennifer a dull girl.)

      Like

      February 23, 2014
  44. So true. Often what we read is a reflection of what we think and who we are. Thus, we should not just pick a book that is enjoying some commercial success or doing rounds in popular culture. We should read that which resonates with our being, and that which adds to our being.

    Like

    February 26, 2014
  45. Good point, well made.

    Like

    March 2, 2014
  46. Exactly! I don’t think anybody can be ‘well read’, because there is always something you have to know, you have to read. Whatever the numbers of the books you have read will equal only a drop of a vast ocean which has to be read!
    I read any book thinking I’m will never complete my wish list. And the ‘desire to read’ cannot be satisfied!! 😀

    Like

    March 4, 2014
  47. Reblogged this on fewwordsbigthoughts.

    Like

    March 5, 2014
  48. ya not correct to say well read. may be to be well read it will take more than a life time specially considering your equation of 129 million books. Ha ha

    Like

    October 1, 2014
  49. When I say I’m “well read”… it’s in reference to a specific subject. Such as “I am well read on domestic violence”. What I mean is, I have read enough books on the subject to have a full understanding of the subject.

    Thought I’d through out a different perspective.

    Like

    August 23, 2016

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  1. What Does It Mean To Be “Well Read?” | Zombie-Haunted Libraries
  2. response: what does it mean to be well read? | NutFreeNerd
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