What Does It Mean to Be Well-Read?

In a “Book Clinic” column at The Guardian, the critic Robert McCrum recently addressed the question, “What does it mean to be well-read?”  And he does not bow to pop fiction or internet poetry as he lays out the tenets of the canon.

He writes,

I’d suggest that three kinds of reading define the well-read mind. First, I’d want to include the immortals from the classics of Greece and Rome: Homer, Plato, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides, Virgil, Plutarch, Ovid, Juvenal and Sappho…

Next, from the Anglo-American literary tradition, we can’t forget Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, Byron, Austen, Keats, Dickens, Twain, Thoreau, Dickinson, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, Eliot, Pound, Auden, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Spark, Beckett, Woolf… and certainly another score of contemporary greats, including Baldwin, Pinter, Morrison, Miller, Bellow and Naipaul.

Finally, and this is where it gets contentious, there’s great writing in translation, from Proust, Freud, Fanon and Bulgakov to Grass, Márquez, Kundera and Levi.

I am always lost in a book, and the canon has powerfully affected my life, to the extent that I have lugged The Collected Poems of Adrienne Rich in a bike pannier and perused Virgil in coffeehouses.  But I do have a few criticisms of the list, as I do of all lists.  Why so heavy on the Greeks when Roman literature had the greater influence?  Let me add the readable Roman writers Apulieus, Suetonius, and Seneca.

McCrum has chosen a superb collection of Anglo-American writers, but he is light on “women’s work,” so let me recommend the Brontes, George Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, and Caroline Gordon.

Judging from the translation category, he needs to read more in translation (I’m being flippant!  He’s well-read.).  But since the following are not on his short list, let’s add Machiavelli, Dante, Stendhal, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Flaubert…and somebody please add some women!

Yes, reading and rereading the canon shapes us and changes us.  What I love about this list is that the recommended classics are readable without academic intervention. (Perhaps there should be a Penguin “Well-Read” kit?)   But does being well-read mean different things to different people? Let me hazard that…

…for professional book reviewers, it means reading the latest books; and they must know, or feign to know, Karl Ove Knaussgard, Rachel Cusk, Jhumpa Lahiri, Julian Barnes, Marilynne Robinson, and perhaps, as their wild card, George R. R. Martin. (British male writers have lauded Martin in the Guardian, the LRB, and the TLS.)

…for university professors, it means reading the classics according to their narrow specialty, whether that is ancient Greek drama or modernist poets, as well as every book of criticism on the subject.

…for bloggers, it means writing emoticon-heavy blurbs about romance novels; long personal responses to  Victorian novels; short reviews of the soon-to-be-forgotten best books of the month; or even learned essays on, say, the influence of Péter Nádas on European literature.

We women writers and bloggers have much work to do now on important  issues like saving abortion rights and reversing global warming (there’s not much time left!), but,  in our free time, let’s add great women writers to the canon.

18 thoughts on “What Does It Mean to Be Well-Read?

  1. For Russian women who should be in the translation canon, I’d add Karolina Pavlova from the 19th century and Marina Tsvetaeva and Anna Akhmatova from the 20th century for starters. Not only were they brilliant innovators in literary form and style, but they aggressively challenged the role of women in life and literature in a way that still seems daring and insightful. Pavlova has a wonderful moment in her novel “A Double Life” in which she asks how mothers can force their daughters into the same oppression and abuse from which they themselves suffered–and then remarks that if it were only bad mothers who did this, it wouldn’t be so bad, since there aren’t very many bad mothers. But it’s the best mothers who are doing this.

    I guess that’s a pretty grim note for a comment on Mothers Day, but maybe all the more reason to read the book.

  2. Oh yes. I do what I can to discuss women’s books. On my WomenWriters@groups.io we discuss women’s novels and coming up is Sybille Bedford’s Jigsaw. The trouble with lists is they often either have the super-famous long older or prize-winning books or we descend to today’s junk or passing ephemera. The once called “middle-brow” (what a snobbish epithet) book gets left out. I even try to make a point to see and review women’s films – films adapting books women, scripted by women, or directed by women, and empathetic stories of women in the center — yes sometimes with feminist themes as they even usually naturally do.

    • Your group has always been influential, and, by the way, I can’t recommend “Jigsaw” too highly. I presume many books have been added to McCrum’s canon since his/our schooling days; I love the list, but I did notice the missing women.

  3. I would include Edith Wharton in the Anglo-American list, and Sigrid Undset and Magda Szabo in the translated lit list.

    • Oh, I do love your suggestions! How could I have forgotten Edith and Sigrid? And since we have the same taste, I will have to read Magda Szabol.

    • People do argue about the canon, and you, too, are well-read in it. McCrum is not a hipster/critic and presumably is not a reader of the Beats, Plath, and Russian novels in translation!

  4. I absolutely agree with you, Kat, that we need to talk more about strong women. Of course I’m mostly about Russian literature, and in that light I recently enjoyed Zinaïda Hippius. Definitely a strong woman, who was not afraid to show her masculine side either.
    But let me also add two Finnish female writers (I’m moving to Finland in two weeks!): Tove Jansson and Sofi Oksanen, both very enjoyable and worth reading.

  5. Great definition for bloggers. I love me a long personal essay about a Victorian novel!!

    You’d think people would stop making these lists, there’s always someone left out.

    • There are so many fun blogs. And I love the canon , and his list is good in terms of readability, but naturllay I have to add some women!

  6. You have your work cut out for you in Iowa, Kat. Finland is beginning to sound better and better. Esp. if we have to deal with another four years of this.

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