The Never-Ending Dilemma of Trying to Be Well-Read

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(Licensed by the author, 2020)

First off, this isn’t a post that’s designed to glorify how much I’ve read. Posts like that have a habit of being a bit condescending, boring and painful to get through. Yes, I’ve read a lot of stuff. But so have so many other people. This post really isn’t about that.

What this post is about is one of the consequences of reading a lot of stuff. As a social creature, I really love to share great literature and nonfiction with other people. The problem is: Most people don’t care.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: I love to read. When I was a kid, just learning to read, I remember having finished all of the stuff other kids were supposed to read and then asking for more. The teacher had nothing else to share in the classroom at that time, but she had been reading “Crime and Punishment” by Dostoevsky, which was on her desk. I asked about that, and she told me it was too difficult for someone of my young age. So, the next day, I got my mom to check out the book for me from the public library. And I struggled through it, and finished it. Years later, I’ve probably read that book at least five times. I get something new from it each time I read it.

A more recent example: I just finished reading Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit, a brilliant writer and thinker who also wrote A Paradise Built in Hell, which I love for its alternative approach of explaining history and the ramifications that occur during history. Both books are chalked full of history, so because I work with a couple of history people, I thought about recommending those books to them. The response I generally received was a blank stare, almost an admission of “your review to me didn’t convince me that I should waste my time reading what you were talking about.”

And that’s the problem right there. Over the years, as I’ve read more and more brilliant stuff, I’ve often recommended it to other people. What I’ve discovered is that so few people take up the gauntlet and decide to read those books. Instead, they listen to your explanation of that book and then because you’ve explained everything about it to them, they decide not to read it, possibly thinking that they’ve already absorbed the knowledge of that book by the mere moment you spent explaining it to them. And then they go on with their lives, only reading the things they find significant.

This reminded me of two things. First, Rebecca Solnit’s book Men Explain Things to Me, in which she details an encounter she had with a boorish man who found out she was a writer and had written on a particular obscure topic so spent the next hour or so telling her she had to read this book about her subject if she was ever going to understand it like he did. Turns out, she wrote that book he was talking about, and as men behave like men, he took forever to acknowledge that once finding out, and then still managed to talk down to her regardless of realizing that fact.

Second, the concept of knowledge and literature requires a modern scholar to actually read the texts himself or herself and not just the cliff notes version (and especially not just the conversation about it from someone who read it instead). Imagine discussing Plato with someone who has never read it but watched a lecture on Plato once. That works great if neither of you have read it (you can be clueless together) but when you’re the one who has read him, discussing it with someone who has no intention of reading it is a complete waste of time.

That’s how I feel when I talk about literature with people and discover that they’re not going to read it, condemning it because they didn’t read it first. I talked about Solnit with one person and actually saw his face turn negative, like he was disgusted by the fact that he’d never heard of her before, and thus, she was unimportant in his mind. That’s the kind of emotional response I receive a lot when I talk about literature that is important yet obscure.

What probably bothers me the most is that people often do not even realize that the books we read are snapshots of the best works of lives that we may never experience again. Other times, they’re snapshots of careers in progress, such as when I recall having read the early works of Ken Follett (who wrote a brilliant spy thriller in Eye of the Needle and then turned around and wrote one of the worst mysteries with ever bad writing technique available soon after that; and then he followed that up with one of the greatest historical narratives I have yet to read in my lifetime). It’s like having great conversations with people who have so much to tell us, and we’re limiting ourselves to only what’s popular, and quite often, on some television or movie screen.

It’s almost gotten to the point where I may not discuss literature with people any more. I remember bringing up Haruki Murakami to one colleague recently and received that “I haven’t read him, so obviously he’s not significant” response. Keep in mind, Murakami is probably among the most respected authors living in the world today. But because he’s not “known” to some individual, I end up having to explain his significance, which finally ends with a sense of “well, if I should find myself on a deserted island, am already bored and his book is all that’s there, I might read it.” Again, I find myself thinking, screw you and I hope you remain uneducated for life. But fortunately, I’m not that elitist. Well, not after I’ve had my first morning diet Dr Pepper.

Author of Innocent Until Proven Guilty and 15 other novels. Writer, college professor and computer game designer.

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