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March 2015 Issue [Easy Chair]

On Not Being Well Read


I loved reading before I could read. I have a distinct memory — yes, our memories are subject to lapses and improvisations, but this one has been around so long I can’t doubt it — of myself at perhaps five years old, sitting between my mother and my father, them with their respective books, me holding my own big book full of pictureless pages of small type, turning the pages one by one and scanning them, chuckling or smiling or sighing now and then as my parents did. It seemed an inexpressibly delightful activity. It still does.

So I have read many books, uncounted numbers of them, starting as soon as I could and continuing to this day. I am sure that I have read more books than most people, though I am equally sure that there are many people who have read far more. I have taken in a number of works so unlikely or recondite that the mention of them would certainly suggest great erudition. I had a weird teenage fascination for little-read and less-performed dramas and libretti: Byron’s Manfred, Milton’s Comus, Pushkin’s Boris Godunov. I read Thomas Love Peacock rather than The Count of Monte Cristo. For a year or two I carried around beautiful pale-green library volumes of Swinburne, and read those too. Still, I can’t call myself well read — the appellation seems ill fitting, someone else’s hat or coat. It was never an ambition of mine, and it has puzzled me in others.

What exactly constitutes being well read, anyway? As with “well groomed” or “well built,” there’s a certain approbation inherent in the term. But what is being approved of? Not just the reading of many books, but of specific books — and the retention of their contents, perhaps through consistent rereading (the Symposium or Hamlet once a year). So what term would be appropriate for me and others like me? “Much read” reverses syntactically the direction of the reading, and isn’t right. “Widely read” implies only a certain catholicity, whereas “well read” implies a program: the right books at the right time, a good coverage of literary accomplishment through the ages, which may shape the growing spirit and then refresh the mature one. But readers aren’t alike; most don’t follow a program or a plan, even if they aspire to one in youth; the constraints and accidents, the quirks of taste and opportunity that form a reading life are as varied and yet as determining as those that form the rest of our experience.

When I was ten years old, my family (I had four sisters, one older than me) moved from New England to coal-mining northeastern Kentucky, where my father had taken a job as the medical director of a small hospital run by an order of Catholic nuns. All of us had been frequenters of our former town’s library, a little Victorian building with a children’s room in the basement. There the complete works of Thornton Burgess, including Old Mother West Wind and Reddy Fox, were arrayed on a long low shelf. The room also boasted an entrancing line of identical volumes bound in blue, each one telling the story of a child in a land other than mine, each cover with a silhouette of the youthful protagonist in native dress. Books are an information-delivery system, and what’s central to their function has little to do with their typefaces, bindings, trim size, or paper. But I am sure that when people remember the books they first loved or most loved, they can remember the look and feel of the physical object at least as well as (or often better than) the content. The Victorian novelist George Gissing once wrote that he knew his books by smell: “I have but to put my nose between the pages to be reminded of all sorts of things.”

There was no library in the tiny Kentucky town to which we had moved. How were we to get our books? My mother learned that it was possible to send away to the state library, in Lexington, and ask to have books delivered from their holdings. Here’s how it worked: we sent in a list of the books, or kinds of books, that each of us wanted. The books came to the local post office in the sort of stout brown box with straps that was then called a “laundry case” (because, I suppose, people away at school or work would send their dirty clothes home in such a container to be cleaned and returned). We read — or didn’t read — the books, packed them up, put in a list of further requests, and sent the box back.

So we had a huge library at our disposal but no way to browse its stacks, which meant that a lot of miscellaneous reading arrived in response to vague requests for “true stories” or “books about animals” or “mysteries, but not thrillers” or whatever was put on the list in addition to the known and the named. That’s how one day I got a complete Sherlock Holmes without asking for it. I started with The Sign of Four, which I found to be truly terrifying, in part because I didn’t understand it was a story with a mystery that would be resolved by the end; it seemed to me simply a series of horrid and unearthly events, and the ending didn’t have for me the intended effect of dissipating the terror. But still I read all the rest. My sisters got some of Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew books, which I also read. These I could easily understand as little clockwork stories with endings that exactly matched their beginnings.

We were homeschooled by a nun recruited from the hospital and were assigned no particular books; my mother tried to teach us French, using some French versions of Beatrix Potter stories I dearly loved. Within two years my father moved our family to an Indiana city with many branch libraries as well as the library of the college where he was employed. As we headed downtown in the Studebaker to the local branch, my mother would lead us in the standard appeal to a saint famous for finding things for petitioners:

Dear St. Anthony
Please find a parking place for me
Right in front of the li-brar-ee.

What did I find there? Biographies, for one thing. At around age twelve I went through a large number of these, including volumes about Woodrow Wilson, an RAF pilot who lost both legs, and Alexandre Dumas, père, whose novels I skipped. I took up The Silver Chalice and other historical romances by Thomas Costain, one after another. (This was before my dalliance with obscure dramatic works.) Sick in bed, I’d read my mother’s mystery novels — four in a day, once — though never when I was well.

Did television displace the need to read into an easier realm of discourse, one that was never off? No, it didn’t. Most of the television of my youth was graspable if given even slight attention, and the visual draw of black-and-white images on C.R.T. screens was minimal (“cool,” as Marshall McLuhan perceived). You could read while watching it, and I did. But I got little closer to being well read. College wasn’t much help; as a member of the Silent Generation of good boys and girls, I thought it was clever to get As in literature courses without reading many of the classics assigned. Only later did I perceive an error there — one that my scanty exploration of Aesop should have already made clear to me.

Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read met an urgent need when it was published, in 2007, just as Dale Carnegie’s self-help bestseller How to Win Friends & Influence People once did for a much larger demographic. Bayard is frank about the fact that we haven’t read a lot of the books we talk about with offhand familiarity, and he approves. “Born into a milieu where reading was rare, deriving little pleasure from the activity, and lacking in any case the time to devote myself to it,” Bayard writes, he had to work out a way to deal with “the stigma attached to non-reading, which . . . arises from a whole network of anxieties rooted (no doubt) in early childhood.” He is now a teacher of literature, and the gaps in his reading create a “risk that at any moment my class will be disrupted and I will find myself humiliated.” He wants to help the similarly afflicted to “emerge unscathed” from “the unconscious guilt that an admission of non-reading elicits.”

Bayard is not of course talking about just any old books, no matter how odd or numerous, but only the books that a well-read mind should be furnished with, those that a professional in the field — like himself — could be assumed to have read and pondered. Bayard knows that even most professed book-lovers are in the same situation to some degree — that which we should have read we did not read, and that which we did read we should not have read — and he proposes a theory of reading that allows readers and non-readers alike to participate in a general conversation about the stuff between covers, even those we haven’t opened.

No matter how much or how little of a book we’ve read, Bayard asserts, we are always in touch with “the infinitely mobile object that is a literary text.” Don Quixote and Falstaff, Raskolnikov’s dilemma and Scarlett O’Hara’s, belong as much to those of us who haven’t read the works as to those who have. Hearing about a book, reading a bit and putting it down, reading and then forgetting its contents — all these are forms of acquisition, additions to the “collective library” we share with the rest of the world, the well and the ill read alike.

Your acceptance of Bayard’s offer, and of his sincerity in proposing it, will perhaps depend in part on your need for approval from yourself and others. Many of the not-well-read deal with feelings of guilt and shame by persuading themselves that they actually have read the books that they’ve only heard about, or by brazen fakery, like the phony marathon runner who slips away from the throng, jumps on the subway for a couple of stops, and then rejoins the race triumphantly at the finish line. The fear of being caught out haunts them, and it haunts them more the better they are at faking it.

That’s not really my case. I have surely forgotten more of the books I’ve read than I’ve remembered, but I remember a lot, and even without subtly falsifying my actual mastery of canons or five-foot shelves, I deploy without thinking a range of literary reference so esoteric that I can’t help giving the impression of being well read. If I protest that I’m not, I can seem like someone claiming — in a certain tone of voice, while swirling a Bordeaux beneath the nose — to know nothing about wine: Compared with whom?

The novelist and critic Tim Parks isn’t worried about books he hasn’t read. In a New York Review of Books blog post, he writes about finding himself lately unable — or not caring — to finish most books, even books he likes, and it bothers him. Of course we have Samuel Johnson’s authority for not reading books through (“No, Sir, do you read books through?”), though we perhaps didn’t come across it reading Boswell, and of course we like Francis Bacon’s idea that some books are only to be tasted, while others are to be chewed and digested, though we may have merely tasted Bacon.

But Parks is talking largely about novels, which should be the sort of books that, unlike histories or works of reference, you want to finish. I have surely left unfinished far more books than I’ve finished, and — like Parks — I tend to put down novels in particular. The reason’s clear: The ends of novels are largely predicated on their beginnings, and, as E. M. Forster noted, at a certain point they begin making their way toward a tidy conclusion, in a manner that life — which novels are to reflect, no matter how fanciful they may be — never actually does, not even in death or marriage. There are novels I would now surely regret having left unfinished (Lolita, Ulysses, Giles Goat-Boy), but they aren’t the majority, and I have no more compunction in old age about putting a novel aside than I have about turning off an episode of Law & Order.

Parks feels that his nonfinishing leaves him with a dilemma, but it’s less a literary or a moral dilemma than a social one: “Can I say then that I’ve read it? Can I recommend it to others and speak of it as a fine book?” More seriously: Can I recommend to others a book I haven’t opened and have only read about, assuming that I already think it’s a fine work and just suited to them? I have done it, of course, and there is no one to answer the question of whether I may or may not. Bayard would say that I am free to do so, indeed ought to do so: a gesture of solidarity.

Knowing books, in that broad view, is like knowing people or social circles. Some people you are intimate with: you remember their pasts and know their private thoughts, you know the people they know; they form the texture of your life and your days. Other people stand farther off in time and space, but you feel you know them, even if superficially, and can ponder them usefully; they are your context. Others are still farther off. They are like those books you’ve only heard of but whose authors you know and can make reference to, nodding in recognition when others do.

None of these are strictly defined strata. They aren’t separated; each level pervades the others, poking through at odd moments and in strange circumstances. A writer whose works you know admires another writer, one you haven’t read, and his admiration, quotation, and allusion are forms of inclusion. You know a guy who knows a guy. Was your guy wrong about his guy? If you investigate you might learn that he was, and drop the new friendship; or you might never look. I was fifteen when I read Lolita, and I not only adopted it as a mode of writing and an ideal to strive toward but took its author as a mentor, so I have never read Gorky, or Balzac, or Mann — whom Nabokov described collectively, in the afterword to his great novel, as the Literature of Ideas, or “topical trash, coming in huge blocks of plaster that are carefully transmitted from age to age” — and maybe he hadn’t, either. I wonder what they’re like.

E. M. Forster writes in Aspects of the Novel that when his “brain decays entirely” he won’t bother any more with great literature; he’ll return to the “eternal summer” of a book he read and reread in boyhood, The Swiss Family Robinson. Not all books are classics. Not all books are even books: the ones I reread most in my boyhood were the annual collections of daily Pogo comic strips, volumes largely lost to time and chance but reappearing now in new editions that will see me through when I’ll want nothing else. I don’t much look into the 1939 Encyclopedia Britannica these days — it’s on the shelf beside me and always will be — but the most spine-cracked and well-thumbed volume in my house is Halliwell’s Film Guide, which I look into often, not so much for information as for the exquisitely miniaturized tales; it’s my Thousand Nights and One Night.

But now that I am in my eighth decade, my seventh of devoted reading, isn’t it perhaps time to correct my lacks, to make myself whole, as the legal phrase would have it? As I write, I have in view a lot of the books I would ask myself to take up; they’ve been there for years, they move with me from house to house. Like many people who have a lot of books on shelves, I have had casual visitors ask if I’ve really read them all, in a tone that might suggest wonderment, or suspicion of pretense. And of course I haven’t read them all. Many are there just because I haven’t read them: because I want, or once wanted, to read them, or at least consult them. They are books I’d like to have inside as well as outside.

I won’t offer the well-known names, and who needs to hear them, anyway? However surprising the list, a suspicion might linger that I am holding back. Just as scam artists and con men come to believe that everyone around them is a scam artist or a con man, so do not-well-read readers come to suppose that the big readers admired for their tenacious page-turning are not telling the whole truth — that no one is. You, Reader, might well chuckle audibly at my admissions, perhaps shaking your head in mild amusement at someone so unlike yourself. But really, it’s all right. I know we are the same, in the same boat, you and I, and it’s a big one. Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère! — as I understand Baudelaire once wrote: words later quoted by an unimpeachably well-read poet in another poem, one that we’ve all surely read, and which I read, too, more than once: I did, I did.

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