What it Means to be "Well-Read" (& How SF Helped Me Stop Caring About it)

Wednesday, 06 June 2012 18:54

What does it mean to be “well-read?” This is a question that I have spent a good deal time thinking about the past several months. For most of my life, “well-read” has meant someone who had read the entire English literary canon and can throw off opinions on writers from Homer to Shakespeare to Faulkner. I vividly remember preparing myself for my undergraduate education by going to the public library to read “the Classics.” What I didn’t anticipate at the time, however, was how boring I would find them. Now I appreciate the value in reading “foundational Western literature,” but few canonical tomes have ever really excited me or made me think, “Wow, I want to read more of that!” Accompanying my lack of interest in these must-read texts was a sense of guilt and worry – I should enjoy Dickens, but I just don’t. Do I not understand the appeal? Everybody else in my first year English class seemed to love carrying around their Norton Anthology of Literature, but I simply performed the work I was tasked with little joy.

Since I had a lack of interest in the canon, I pursued courses in other genres of literature throughout my undergrad when I could: environmental writing, regional-Western Canadian poetry, Russian literature of the 20th century (Bulgakov, not Tolstoy). The result of my careful picking and choosing around the core-required courses is that I had read a little bit of everything from everywhere. If there were gaps in my knowledge of the canon, surely this would not be held against me when I entered into my Master’s degree.

During grad school, unfortunately, any confidence I had gained from undergrad was quickly stamped out. I almost consistently felt – and was made to feel by many of my peers – like I was embarrassingly “under-read.” I can’t even count the number of time where a (usually male) colleague said to me, “Oh! You haven’t read that?” Regardless of how they framed their derision, their meaning was clear: I was not as well-read as them and therefore somehow less intelligent/undeserving of graduate education/an idiot. I now know that much of this kind of combative conversation and literary peacockery is tied into gendered and classed ways of discourse, and academia encourages the assessment of one’s intelligence based on who/what they have read.

Of course, being well-read is important when you are an academic. Clearly, if you are researching and writing about a particular topic, it is best that you know as much about it as possible. But the distinction between what you need to read and what you should read is complicated and always changing. What you “should read” is often politically driven, based on which academic celebrity is in vogue this year, which splinter discipline is grabbing all the funding, etc. In my experience, peers who came from well-to-do homes were much “better read” than myself. By belittling my literary experience, these people were also reminding me, perhaps unintentionally, that I was outside of the norm. I was not, for all intensive purposes, “well-read” (which is too close to “well-bred” for my comfort).

One of the ways in which people (in academia, or really anyplace where there are pretentious jerks) maintain the illusion of their being “well-read” is to dismiss the knowledge of others. When I said, “I’m working with feminist SF writers,” snobbish colleagues would retort, “Have you read [insert whatever SF writer that they have read]?” Even if the conversation got to the point where I told them about the writers that I was working with, writers unfamiliar to them, these privileged peers would still insist in eliding my interests with theirs, which, by default, were better, smarter, more important and worthy of study. It sucked to be continually intellectually marginalized, but I kept on reading what I enjoyed despite my sense of genre-induced isolation.

When I first started involving myself with SF fandom, I brought all of my grad school insecurities with me. At the first con I attended (WorldCon in Montreal), I was overwhelmed at how well-read the other fans were that I was meeting. I only knew the little corner of feminist SF that I had studied for my dissertation. There was just so much SF out there that I hadn’t even heard of, never mind read. But, unlike my grad school peers, most of the fans I talked with weren’t condescending when I said, “I haven’t read that yet.” It really hit home to me that I was in a different world of reading when I explained my interest in feminist SF … and people not only asked me who my favourites were, but they wanted my recommendations! Up until that con, no one I talked to about my work asked me what they should read. Reciprocal interest AND respect? I hardly knew how to respond!

Instead of a verbal game of one-up-manship or a pure info-dump, the majority of people I talk to at cons are interested in sharing resources with me. I’m not saying that there aren’t still politics and power issues at play at cons when it comes to “the books that you should read” (because there most certainly are problems), but that there is a greater general openness to a variety of engagements with genre which is simply not as present within academe.

My experience with fandom, then, is a mixed bag when it comes to people using the phrase “well-read.” Since SF has so many subgenres, and many that bleed into the larger genres of fantasy and horror, very few people can claim to be well-read in all of it. Going to SF cons has helped me appreciate what it means to be truly well-read. If I’m sitting next to someone in their late-50’s who has been reading SF since they were a teenager, there is no way that my five years of directed scholarly SF readership will match their experience. And chances are good that they haven’t read the disgusting amounts of academic theory that I have, which help me frame my SF readings in, I hope, unique and productive ways.

I feel increasingly more comfortable in telling people, “I have not read that! I’ll put it on my list.” I have turned my lack of knowledge into opportunities to connect and learn from other fans. It’s impossible to read everything and I’ve finally stopped trying – and caring – to do so. By being amongst a diverse group of fannish people, I better understand the inherent unfairness of the phrase “well-read.” The amount and kind of books that I have read are dependent on the time, money, education, and health that are available to me at any given moment. These are factors with which we all must contend, but few acknowledge in their evaluation of what it means to be “well-read.”

I am happy with my little corner of books, but I still I want to read more and I want read widely. I am, however, constrained by finances, time, and ability. I would rather sit down with a person who has read a few novels well, than with somebody who has read a lot of books just for the sake of having read them. I’m sure that I will continue to encounter people who have read everything and think that they are better for it. But I don’t give them my time or attention anymore. I’m interested in learning about people’s passions – why did a certain book grab them, what do they recommend? To me, to be “well-read,” then, has come to mean “to love-what-you’re-reading.” More sharing, less judgement. Let's throw out the literary yard sticks!

Now help me decide on what book I should read next …

2 comments

  • Comment Link Kathryn Friday, 08 June 2012 11:40 posted by Kathryn

    Thanks Tatiana!

    I think that the competitive academic environment works for some people - I'm just not one of them.

    Part of the reason I write these kinds of posts is because they help me work out the difficulties I had with my graduate education. I love being an independent scholar now because I feel I have more freedom and opportunities to connect with like-minded people (at both fan and academic cons).

    There are certainly pressures to be "well-read" in fandom, but as you say, most people there are far more understanding about knowledge gaps - and have a greater willingness to share resources.

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  • Comment Link tatiana Thursday, 07 June 2012 20:55 posted by tatiana

    I enjoyed this post - although I majored in French and Film in undergrad (so no one had read the scholarly texts except the professor!) I can understand what you mean. It's often difficult, even internally, when I feel like I should be more interested in classical (pre-20th century literature). But so much of it - if not all of it - is so dreadful. I barely made my way through anything that was written before the 1900s. And even then, I haven't read many of the American classics in the earlier part of the 20th century. In fact, a lot of the books I've read an enjoyed probably came out in the 50-60s and later.

    But I'm glad you had a better experience at the con - I think fandoms are more sympathetic since they're less academic and there for the love of the whatever. Whereas in academia, there's already this whole game in play and it's awful.

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