The Myth of Being Well-Read

Okay, hold up. If you haven’t heard the big news, I want to be the one to tell you.

Wait for it…


Harper Lee is releasing her second novel ever.

*cue excited screams*

I know.

Frankly, when I first read the news somewhere on Facebook, I didn’t actually freak out on the spot. I mean, I was happy, but it took like a solid hour or two (or maybe three more posts on Facebook) to get me really, really pumped for this. Honestly, the weight of the news really didn’t hit me until then. This is huge.

And actually, it’s funny that this news has been released, because it coincides perfectly with a topic I’ve been meaning to write about lately.

Now, okay, maybe you’re reading this (or you read one of the various other news sources), and you’re thinking “Okay, so what?” To this, I would come up with two possible conclusions about you:

  1. You aren’t a reader and thus don’t understand the gravity that is when your favorite author announces that they’re publishing another book (think Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows or The Winds of Winter, the forthcoming 6th book in the Game of Thrones series), or

  2. You’ve never read To Kill a Mockingbird

These are both completely valid conclusions to come to if someone says “So what?” to this kind of news. The part that gets tricky is what comes after.

Maybe you are a reader, and that first conclusion isn’t true about you. You really really like sci-fi novels, and can’t wait for the next book in your series to come out, so you understand how it feels when this kind of announcement is made. But you still say “So what?” Maybe you don’t really like other types of fiction. Maybe you got into sci-fi because your mom really liked it growing up, and she got you reading, but because she doesn’t read much else neither do you. Maybe you tried to branch into mystery and got bored. For whatever reason, maybe you haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird and the second conclusion does apply to you.

Like I said, the conclusion is valid, but the judgement that comes right after is not.

After being officially declared an English major for a year now (though in my heart I’ve been an English major since I got accepted to UM), I’ve noticed a trend within the English department, that I have to say also applies to me. And it’s not the English majors’ fault, because it’s not just English majors, but also any intellectual who studies/studied the humanities.

What I’m talking about people is the concept of being “well read.” If you go up to an English major and say “I haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird” many will gasp loudly, protest vehemently, and automatically insist you pick it up right this minute, you know what, I’ll go buy it for you right now at The Dawn Treader. But what makes a book considered worth reading in the first place? It obviously isn’t popular opinion, because then Twilight and The Hunger Games would be included in the lexicon.

But more than that is the whole concept of it all, and the judgement that comes immediately after. Although comments such as these have never been directed at me, I’ve often felt uncomfortable in my classes when the topics of books comes up. This comes up most often at the beginning at the semester, when the favorite ice breaker seems to be “the last thing you read” or “the last thing you enjoyed reading.” For someone like me, who is seriously considering either going into creative nonfiction journalism (such as this blog) or into YA Lit, this question is always, without fail, a way to embarrass me, and I always have to have an acceptable back-up answer ready at hand. Last semester my back-up answer was the piece written by the Washington Post journalist that went to and was arrested in Ferguson. I don’t remember my back-up answer this semester, but I sure as heck wasn’t going to say that I finished The Moon and More by YA romance author Sarah Dessen. But that was my honest answer, it was in fact the last book that I finished. And the last piece I read was probably any sort of online article about music, movies, TV, you name it. In the stage of life I’m in right now, it’s honestly what I like to read. Sure, I have Water for Elephants and Life of Pi on my Kindle right now ready for me to read at a moments notice. But I’m also in the middle of reading Paper Towns by John Green, and I plan on finishing it sometime soon.

So why is it that when people talk about Dante’s Inferno or name drop Nietzsche (who I really didn’t know until last semester), I get really anxious and uncomfortable? I know enough about Inferno to get by when it’s mentioned, but I’ve never read it and I’m not planning on it any time soon. Why would I when there’s so many other books I’d enjoy much more?

And yes, okay, I am planning on reading “adult” books eventually. I finally read Frankenstein this past semester for class, and I do actually want to read Life of Pi, which is why it is actually on my Kindle right now. But if I don’t read them right now, does that make me less of a reader?

I’d like to argue that it doesn’t, and I’m sure this argument has been made many times, but I thought it was worth considering in the terms of a highly intellectual University. I’m not saying that every time a professor makes a connection between a novel and Paradise Lost they’re wrong and shouldn’t do it, because intertextuality is important when understanding the novel and its merits, but the judgement that comes when individuals have conversations about books and I just haven’t read one yet should not be happening.

But yeah. Harper Lee. Get excited. Or not. Whatever floats your boat.

Jeannie Marie

A Venn Diagram of hipster music, sappy romantic comedies, nerd culture, adorable puppies, film trivia, totally not rigged awards shows, random illustritive quotes with a dash of not-quite-there-yet charm.

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