What does being “well-read” mean to you?

There are thousands of books out there and only a few years in order to actually read books.  This is a well known fact.  After all, people have been writing for millennia! From proto-writing to cuniform to the modern form that we enjoy today.  Obviously, we aren’t about to go out and get a book written in cuniform or heiroglyphs, so that narrows down a few millennia (although some of these books have been translated into modern English).  Phew!

Because I work in a library, I can see how many books there are that I haven’t read.  Everytime I shop on my Kindle, I see the number of books that have been converted to an electronic format… that I haven’t read.  701,105 to be exact.  Still, I manage to get through 5 books on a good week, 1 – 2.5 if its been a rough week.  I’ve been making dents in my “must read” list and have started to feel as though I’ve started my journey to becoming “well-read”.  Which, to me, means reading a variety of books from different subjects and actually taking in the information.

Well. My fellow bookie M.C. tweeted a link to an article dealing with the fact that we’re never going to be able to read, see, do everything (duh), so why not pick the battles?  In the article The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We’re All Going to Miss Almost Everything by Linda Holmes, she gives us a brilliant example of this.

Consider books alone. Let’s say you read two a week, and sometimes you take on a long one that takes you a whole week. That’s quite a brisk pace for the average person. That lets you finish, let’s say, 100 books a year. If we assume you start now, and you’re 15, and you are willing to continue at this pace until you’re 80. That’s 6,500 books, which really sounds like a lot.

Let’s do you another favor: Let’s further assume you limit yourself to books from the last, say, 250 years. Nothing before 1761. This cuts out giant, enormous swaths of literature, of course, but we’ll assume you’re willing to write off thousands of years of writing in an effort to be reasonably well-read.

Of course, by the time you’re 80, there will be 65 more years of new books, so by then, you’re dealing with 315 years of books, which allows you to read about 20 books from each year. You’ll have to break down your 20 books each year between fiction and nonfiction – you have to cover history, philosophy, essays, diaries, science, religion, science fiction, westerns, political theory … I hope you weren’t planning to go out very much. – Linda Holmes

That is a little daunting to say the least.  And really, this is probably the first time I’ve ever considered this interesting mathematical aspect of my reading…

If I read 5 books/ week that = 10 books biweekly = 20 books/ month

There are 12 months in a year… which = 240 books/ year

And that’s a good case scenario week.  Still, if there are on average 1,000,000 books being published per year, my 240 is never going to keep up.  That’s where what Linda Holmes identifies as survival strategy comes in.  She states that there are two approaches to not overloading your system that most people take.  There is culling (which I admit to using quite aggressively) and then surrender.  I don’t think I can even attempt to try to explain it as eloquently as Linda has done, so you’ll have to read the article to find a more thorough explanation.

Now, the reason that I’m even writing about this topic is because it draws a big question (at least in my  mind) over how useful it is to be able to access EVERYTHING within a short time and with such ease.  I remember being limited to reading whatever was in my local bookstore (which was a family business btw) or the library.  So in that aspect, I was well read by the standards of my community at the time.  And I think that this is important to clarify when talking about whether someone is well read or not.  It to me is not about what you have read in relation to the rest of the world online… but in relation to what and how much you have read in relation to the community that you surround yourself with.  So, with that being said, I’m going to consider that I am well read because on Cynthia Ozick’s list of authors that blogger Roger Ebert mentions in his discussion of what being “well read” means, I can say that in my community I have read The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton.


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