Before reading any further, I kind of have to require that you read the article so I am not forced to repeat the words in the article too, too much.
I recall that in high school, a teacher discussed how Thomas Jefferson was a master of almost all the knowledge the world had to offer. Languages. Science. Poetry. History and Geography. What have you, if a book offered it up, Jefferson bought the book and was able to recall and process the information. "Of course," we were told, "there just wasn't that much to know back then." Which, of course, I now realize is sort of a tall tale to explain how well-read Jefferson was, and to understand how he embraced lifelong learning as a passion (or, perhaps, his passion for knowledge is itself what drove him).
I didn't believe then that Jefferson truly knew "everything", and I often think back to that story as a sort of fantasy for bookworms, museum dwellers, hobbyists, etc... (a) the mental capacity to absorb and comprehend whatever material is put in front of you and (b) such a limited amount of knowledge to even try to absorb that its possible to have learned all there is to learn in your culture, perhaps by the age of 50.
But that's a pretty damn high bar to qualify as "well read".
For the record, I don't consider myself well read. My patience is short with books written prior to 1900. Anything over 500 pages gives me a moment of pause. The manner in which books are dealt with in K-12 education always felt unnatural and suspect. It wasn't that I didn't or don't read. I just think my AP English teacher broke me and my interest in reading a pre-assigned list of books one is supposed to read, and built in a lifelong aversion to approved literature. This is not something I celebrate, by the way. I'm kind of sad at all the things I will likely never read, because, seriously... no. I'm not going to read Tolstoy or likely ever James Joyce or any of a couple hundred books that bring joy to very smart people I like and admire. I'm not in my 20's anymore, when I guess people read those books. I bypassed college literature classes after comping out, and it didn't fit very well in my schedule then either for coursework or during my off hours where I could be found sitting in a movie theater or walking the aisles at the video store.
The article discusses mechanisms for dealing, either culling or surrendering. And I think we all do a bit of both.
I recall being 18 and standing in Tower Records and having something akin to a panic attack as I realized "I will never hear 90% of the albums, and every time I buy one that's a thousand I didn't buy." This was back when you had to buy music to hear it. And so it goes.
I don't know very many people I would consider well read, even among people I know who read a lot of books. I wish the article did more to talk about what the idea of being well-read even means in the 21st Century. I don't know if I can buy the idea that Holmes states in her final sentences.
If "well-read" means "not missing anything," then nobody has a chance. If "well-read" means "making a genuine effort to explore thoughtfully," then yes, we can all be well-read.Who does this describe? I don't know this person. I've never seen him or her. Even the idea that a person cranks through 100 books in a year is almost laughable. You may read several, but in 2007, 1 in 4 said they hadn't read any books in the previous year. But I'm not sure that's something to get hung up on, exactly. Even if someone reads 50 books in a year, is that time better spent if the books are lousy than if that person were reading newspapers, journal articles, etc...? Does reading all of War and Peace carry the same weight as a David Sedaris airplane book? What constitutes thoughtful exploration? Where's the rubric for that?
Its the 21st Century. We receive and process stories and information in packages that didn't exist 100 years ago. If its fiction we're describing, does a book outweigh the value of a film at every turn (I'm the first to say it usually does)? Longform television series? And can't you have deep thoughts(tm) that come from these other media? And if you don't, is it the media or the message?
We have limited time on this spinning space rock. And we've all got our pet biases. Of course I love comics. And, firstly, 95% (or more) of the population will witness the walls of comics in my home, the crates of comics stored away and I cannot imagine anyone looking at me and judging me as well read. I don't, but its not because I'm more likely to pick up Jimmy Olsen than finally @#$%ing finish Moby Dick.
As mentioned above, I was broken. We all had assigned reading we hated. Specifically, it was Tess of the D'Urbervilles that sort of pushed me over the edge into distrusting the idea of a prescribed set of books that may have been relevant 50, 75, 100 years prior, but sitting in a classroom in 1993, and seeing my instructor swoon in her personal infatuation with the book, but fail to convince me that the book wasn't some sort of masochistic victim porn. "Why is this good?" I asked. "Because people have loved it for generations" I was told. "Its been assigned for generations," I said, "Of course you're always going to find somebody who likes everything. I don't see how that makes it good. Beverly Hills 90210 isn't 'good' and millions of people watch that." "This isn't going to get you any closer to an 'A'" I was informed. And so I shut up.
Of course genre fiction was trash. And I loved it. It brings me back to the question from over the weekend, of the possibly no-longer useful thinking employed in the NYT Game of Thrones review I mentioned.
But if I find something worth loving in Holmes' article, its the idea of surrender, which is something I occasionally espouse here, though I've never put a name on it. I've just considered a zen* approach to dealing with the fact that there is too much to ever read, watch or listen to. Just this week, I told some of your fellow Leaguers via email that I likely just wasn't going to read Ayn rand before I died. It just wasn't on the bucket list.
You can actually see a version of the bucket list, by the way. I keep it on a Google Site. Its easier to manage if I keep a physical list of reminders, etc... Would anything in that list lead you to believe I was "well read"? Or was gaining understanding? No.
Now, I am certain I cull. I avoid romantic comedies, I won't read Harlequin Romance novels and I'll be honest... poetry is just beyond me. I can't get my head around 95% of country music, and I generally avoid stagey, 3-camera sitcoms and sports talk television except during football season.
As per books... you know, its hard to say.
But we all cull. Its called personal taste or interest. We all surrender.
I work in a building housing part of one of the finest libraries in the world. The building I work in, a main campus library, is 6 stories and has a footprint about the size of just under a city block. That building holds books on 4 of those floors, maps on one, and is one of about a dozen library buildings on campus. And they really don't bother keeping much in the way of fiction in the library, I might add.
I have no idea what well read means. Like everyone else, I wish I were smarter and had more information and insight at my fingertips. But I am happy to be a part of curating and managing the wealth of human achievement as we move from dusty shelves to the digital beyond.
What choice is there but a happy surrender?
If there's been a central thesis to The Signal Watch and League of Melbotis before it, its been to try to rally a bit behind genre fiction in comics, books, movies, TV, et al., and try to make a case that this stuff has merit, that its part of the great possibilities. It seemed like a small crack of insanity back in 2003, but in the short 8 years I've been doing this (and April marks the 8th anniversary), its been an amazing period of growth, co-option, adoption, transformation, diversity, etc... for the world of genre fiction. If I've had any part in it, its just been to be a statistic of the number of blogs dedicated to these sorts of shenanigans, and these days, our numbers are legion.
So of course I'm biased. But I also fully expect that a good number of readers have either culled the stuff I'm discussing right out of their options or they've done that surrender bit.
But that's the way it is. There's too much. And I often feel badly, because you people are all right, and when you make suggestions as friends, its hard to just shrug and say "yeah, I'm probably never going to read that" and not make it sound like you're not a disrespectful jerk. There's just a whole lot of stuff out there.
*certainly, I am misusing this word