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How to become well read

Filed Under: miscellaneous, recreation, book reviews

stack of classic literature books

I am one of the lucky ones. I grew up with my mother reading to me constantly, and since I always saw my parents reading, I had good examples (ah, the power of modeling). Reading was an innate love for me.

What if you found reading later in life? Is it possible to become well read without that solid foundation? Or what if you got lost in mundane life tasks and put reading by the wayside for a while? Can you still be well read?

In my opinion, as an avid reader, someone who holds a degree in English literature, and a former reading teacher, the answer is yes. It's never too late to start reading regularly, and it doesn't take much to catch up, so to speak. Thankfully, there is a pool of amazing books from which to choose.

After the break, you'll find my tips on how to become well read.

Read anything.

Yes, anything. Part of being well read is reading a vast variety of written material. So don't be ashamed by your trashy beach novel (the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich is a guilty pleasure of mine) and yes, your Better Homes and Gardens magazine does count! Just read -- there is no room for snobbery when it comes to enjoying reading.

Read some classics.

It is only people who make up these very subjective lists, but they have some worth in highlighting books that someone thinks are great, and that in itself is important, because becoming well read is a cooperative and social venture (we'll get to that).

  • Read some of the top 100 novels of the 20th century. May I suggest you start with a few of my favorites: The Great Gatsby, As I Lay Dying, and The Catcher in the Rye.
  • Also read some of the best novels of the 19th century. So many of my favorites are on this list: the number one Pride and Prejudice, the lesser known The Death of Ivan Ilyich, the groundbreaking Uncle Tom's Cabin, and the much-better-than-the musical Les Miserables.
  • Read Shakespeare. I know you really don't want to, and I didn't either. In fact, I think Romeo and Juliet is nearly unreadable. So try a comedy or a tragedy instead. Macbeth is brilliant, Othello is a powerful surprise, and Much Ado about Nothing is my favorite comedy.

Read best sellers.

Some of my all-time favorite books have come from best seller lists: The Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Red Tent, The Double-Bind, and Here on Earth. The Sparrow, Handmaid's Tale, Einstein's Dreams... I could go on. You've got to figure that if a lot of people are reading them, then some of them will have value to you as well.

Read book club picks.

These are people who love to read books and love to talk about books, so you know they are going to choose books that will stimulate your mind and all of the wonderful benefits that come with reading. Start with these lists:

Make reading a social venture.

There is nothing most unsatisfying than reading a good book and having no one to talk to about it. If you can't devote time to an organized platform like a book club, try an online community. Even call up your best friend to dish about the new novel you couldn't put down, because by talking about something you've read, you gain a whole new understanding and appreciation for it. Discussing books will amplify your passion for them.

  • Join a book club, or start one.
  • Use Goodreads. This is an online community of readers, but you create your own circle of friends by inviting them to share. You can keep up with what your friends are reading and see their reviews and you can keep a running list of books you've read, are reading, and would like to read.
So what does it take to be well read? An unabashed love for reading and discussing the written word, whatever it may be. Reading is thinking; the books it takes to get you there are your own path.

  • Duane

    Geez, I agree that Romeo and Juliet (which is classified as a tragedy, by the way) is a bit immature at times with all the sex jokes, but I'm not sure I'd go so far as to call it unreadable. Tybalt's got some great dialogue, the death of Mercutio is great, and pretty much every scene between Romeo and Juliet is pure beauty (well, short of the balcony scene which has been beaten to death by high school english classes the world over). "When he shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun." I love that bit.

  • Shane

    Eh, weak. There's a difference between being well read and being widely read. One is quality and the other is quantity.

    WRT Shakespeare, unless you're interested/in the industry don't read him, ever. Reading scripts will drive the layman batsh!t crazy. Read a novelization of his stories, or better yet, get some culture and go see a play.

    Want to know about a subject you know nothing about and find daunting? Hit the juvenile section of the library and grab a book on that topic. Want to know a subject in depth? Pick up three separate books by three separate authors on a subject, make sure one author holds a position contrary to yours. Want to know the technical details of a subject? Look up MIT's website, download the syllabus for whatever you want to learn about, print off the reading list, take it to the library, read those books. Want to read the books that have influenced the greatest people throughout history? Grab a copy of The Lifetime Reading Plan. Got a PDA or Smart Phone? Download that reading list off of Project Gutenberg.

  • M.E. Williams

    Shane -- I read everything, and I disagree about Shakespeare. ;) I think it does help to see the plays as well, but honestly, reading scripts doesn't drive *everyone* crazy. People who really have problems can try the "No Fear Shakespeare" editions, which have parallel texts. I personally always preferred the WSP Folger Library editions... no parallel texts, but notes and illustrations on the facing pages.

    This is Debra's post and she has a right to put in it what she wants; while I agree with the majority of what she says, and it wouldn't matter if I didn't, I'm a bit snootier about best-sellers (even though I love young adult fantasy by people like Diana Wynne Jones, Ysabeau Wilce, and Garth Nix). I do have to say that, if it had been my post, I also would have included Fadiman and Major's version of "The New Lifetime Reading Plan." Every one of their recommendations has been a joy to read.

    (You can find a list at the following link, but it's better to have the book itself, because they recommend specific editions, talk about translation issues, etc. )

    Michael Dirda's recent books of recommendations are also good, as is the list in, IIRC, Adler and Van Doren's "How to Read a Book." The Modern Library list D. linked is great; I believe there's a parallel list for nonfiction that's worth hunting down, but all I can remember about it at the moment is that the top pick was "The Education of Henry Adams."

    No arguments about your research concept: those are all things that I would also recommend. It's possible to become a well-informed amateur on most topics, if you're willing to do the work. :)

    (For me, it always starts the day I realize that there's something about which I need to be a lot less ignorant, maybe because it's coming up in conversations and I'm not understanding half of the references I'm hearing.)

    On the flip side of all this is Pierre Bayard's "How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read," which postulates... well, check it out. You'll see.

  • Shane

    It comes down to a definition of terms really, well read as opposed to widely read. Sit down in the doctors office and read every magazine in the waiting room, go through Oprah's book club, read the best sellers list and you'll be widely read. Read quality material from various authors with varying opinions on specific topics and you'll be well read in those topics. If you want to read well then read everything. Maybe that should be the title of the post.

    Anyway, I wasn't picking on Shakespeare. I was picking on scripts. If people liked to read scripts then that's what would be on the NYTimes best sellers list.

  • J.P.

    My largest obstacle on the course to becoming well read has always been a matter of time. I do love to read, but have trouble making time for such a solitary activity in my day, resulting in the only reading I would get done is the fine literature of Dr. Seuss to the kids before bed. Then I found, a service that I can't recommend enough. They let you sign up to have a book from their library sent out to you, in small chunks on a regular schedule. So far, just this year, I've managed to knock at Pride and Prejudice and The Picture of Dorian Gray, and have just begun The Count of Monte Christo (though two books is far away from how much I used read, it is definitely a step back in the right direction.) Anyways, you should definitely check it out, it's at:

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