Why do you read? What do you read? Why do you read what you read?
Do you even read? (If you don’t, please don’t tell me, I don’t think my constitution can handle that.)
When you read, what are you aiming for? Pleasure? Self-improvement? Information? Distraction?
Have you read the classics? Are you well read? What does that even mean?
I’ve been having a lot of conversations with my friend Stephen about this lately, so I thought I would do some writing on it. He has often said that if one read the classics that would be all they ever read. Which is very true. Every time I approach the classics table at Barnes & Noble I think, “I need to read that, and that, and that, oh geez.”
I consider myself a reader, even though there are several things I still need to read (“To Kill A Mockingbird” and “The Two Towers” being just two examples). I plan to read these and other classics, I know they’re still here for a reason, and I know I have things to learn from them. And the list slowly get smaller and smaller (I’ve almost conquered the Iliad.)
Sometimes I read things on coercion. The reason I finally got around to reading “Othello” and “King Lear” was because someone I was in a show with refused to acknowledge I existed until I had read them. “Huckleberry Finn,” “Pride and Prejudice,” “1984,” and the Odyssey were all things I read as the result of English classes.
But I don’t sit around the house always reading from some imaginary checklist of books, and I think if I did I would be absolutely miserable. I read things that interest me, whether or not it’s a candidate for the most important work in the English language.
So what does being well read mean? Does it mean that you’re smart? That you’re literate? I don’t think the title is what matters, but it brings up an interesting question about what drives our book selection. I usually select reading material that reflects desires and interests in my life and art. (Such examples include Neil Gaiman and obscure Elizabethan drama.)When I decide to read a classic there is sometimes a sense of obligation involved, but reading a book is one of the more harmless actions in the universe, and I have yet to regret picking up a classic.
I don’t think anyone should ever feel guilty about not reading the “right” books, just as long as they read (preferably good) books. The beautiful thing about the diversity of human experience is that it is reflected in its produced literature. No one book or set of books can be the ultimate or the only one(s) of importance. You can try to boil it down but you’ll always end up leaving something out, or including something that someone will find to be absolute dreck. It’s all subjective. Reading something like “Watchmen” can be just as valid as reading “Hamlet.” They are both well-crafted expressions and valuable to different audiences.
Of course, twist my arm and quote “Twilight” at me and I’ll say Hamlet is better, but that’s quite beside the point.
But what do you think?