What does it mean to be well-read? We who write have more than a passing interest in reading. We read to fuel our own thoughts and works, and we want others to read us. My idea of someone who is well-read is a person who can quote extensively and lovingly from my stories.
But seriously, folks…
More commonly, well-read looks like this list from the Telegraph: some of the biggest books from the canon plus history and modern classics.
Linda Holmes suggests that being well-read is an effort we make, not a destination we reach. There is too much to read, and there are too many other things that require and deserve our attention in life, to achieve literary mastery. In her article, Holmes links to this piece by Roger Ebert; he laments that people don’t have the interest in reading (especially the classics) that they used do, and great authors are slowly headed for cultural oblivion despite their genius.
Since the dawn of the printing press, contemporary authors and the sages of the ages have had to compete for shelf space. Increasingly, I would suggest, the sages lose to works with modern vocabulary and syntax. For sheer readability, Chaucer and his “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote the droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote” cannot beat “Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery,” the opening line of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Most of us aren’t going to fight our way through difficult sentences (whether venerable or not) just to say we’ve done it.
Being well-read requires actual reading; the Cliff’s Notes approach is flawed. You might know what the story is about, but you will not have immersed yourself in the author’s language and presentation. Reading synopses might, in some senses, be better than having no knowledge of a book, but Woody Allen wasn’t far from the mark when he said, “I took a speed–reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.” Just so, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar involves Rome, and many of Patrick O’Brian’s finest works involve water.
And thus it is that English teachers are the custodians of our culture. Without their patiently guiding the next generation through a smattering of the best writing of the centuries, the great authors would disappear far sooner than Mr. Ebert fears they will.