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What Makes a Person Well-Read?

May 13, 2013
Magazines, Connaught Place

Buy a bunch of these, and you may be considered to be “well-read.” (Photo credit: prolix6x)

It doesn’t take much to make people believe that I’m a well-read literary type.  I put a bunch of thick hardcover classics on my bookshelf in my living room, so all my guests assume that I’ve read them.  I’ve memorized a few quotes from literature to make me sound smarter than I really am.  And I make sure not to talk about football around my intellectual literary friends. 

So when I heard there was a list of the 20 most well-read cities in the U.S., I thought, what would it take to make a well-read city?  After all, if I can fool my intellectual literary friends into thinking I’m well-read, what can a city do? 

Being well-read is a trait that a city would probably want to have.  When other city lists come out (fattest city, city with the most crime, highest taxes city), most cities don’t want to be on those lists (except a couple cities are proud of their high taxes). 

After a little research (because a little research is all that I’m willing to do), I found out what the four factors were in being on the Most Well-Read City list: 

1.  Book sales

2.  Magazine sales

3.  Newspaper sales

4.  Amazon Kindle sales (This list of well-read cities was compiled by… Amazon.  I guess that’s important.) 

Magazines count as being well-read?  I feel cheated.  All these years I spent finding used, yellowed hardcover editions of classic literature so that I could be considered well-read, and all I had to do was put a bunch of Newsweek and Playboy magazines out there.  If you count comic books as magazines, I could have put my complete collection of The Avengers out there, and I would have been considered well-read by all friends and colleagues. 

Newspapers also count?  I didn’t even know people bought newspapers to read them anymore (except in the bathroom).   Evidently, clipping coupons and looking for store sales makes a person well-read.  All those years, I could have been saving money instead of pretending to read big books. 

To me, the fact that Amazon used its Kindle sales as part of its criteria (while ignoring digital sales from other booksellers) invalidates its own list.  If Barnes & Noble comes out with its own list, cities that have lots of Barnes & Noble stores might be the Most Well-Read Cities. 

It’s not that Amazon has put out a highly flawed, publicized list that chaps my hide.  It’s that I spent years of effort convincing my friends, peers, and coworkers that I was well-read.  Now Amazon has changed the meaning of well-read and made all that effort wasted.  That really ticks me off. 

Now just because Amazon has redefined well-read doesn’t mean their version has to stick.  We traditionalists (even a fraudulent traditionalist like me) can still influence what well- read means and what it doesn’t.  What characteristics go into being well-read

  •  Does any book count?
  •  What books are worth more than others?
  •  Should newspapers and magazines count?
  •  If digital books count (and they probably should), shouldn’t  ALL of them count (not just the ones on Kindle)?
  • Should the digital-only books count as much as traditionally published books?
  • What kind of scoring scale should be used to rate the varying kinds of literature? 

I probably don’t have the right to be upset.  After all, I’ve always faked being well-read.  It’s the well-read literary types who have actually read the classics that should feel cheated.  Or should they?  Is all reading considered equal? 

That’s probably for people much smarter and much more well-read than me to decide.

  1. A magazine of us weekly does not make one well read. It does however show that they can read…. or they are just getting them for the pictures 😉 You do actually have to read on a regular basis (in my opinion) to be well read. I actually carry a book with me everywhere I go so if the chance to read arises…. I’m good! Some of the books I read aren’t anything more than an everyday escape. Classics occasionally…. but they are meant for children usually. Those are the best kind. A book that is written for one but relates to many. I very much enjoyed your article. Just know that everyone has something that interests them. Maybe it is time to dust off one of those old classics…. or find something new that appeals to you. 🙂 Happy reading.

    • I’d kind of like to know how Amazon weighed the importance of books and magazines and newspapers, but then they’d have to release a really long and detailed breakdown, and I’d never read the whole thing anyway. So I’ll just complain. It’s been a few months since I’ve (pretended to) read a classic, so I may follow your advice. Thank you!

      • I don’t relate as much to the classics. I like more modern fiction. I have a sort of disconnect with the language and if its historical I tend to flat line. My rule is that if the first 50 pages haven’t drawn me in…. I’m allowed to put it away and try something else.

  2. You have every right to be upset. Pretending to be well read is very hard work.

  3. I wonder, are blogs counted as reading? If not, what about books written by bloggers?

  4. How many books are taken out of public libraries per capita?
    How many books sold?

    • Ugh, you’re right. Even though I’ve had some bad experiences in libraries (books with gross surprises in them and people doing weird stuff in the stacks), any “well-read” city list should have libraries somewhere in the equation. Thanks for thinking of it.

  5. While I’m thrilled to hear that people still read, the twaddle in Twilight and that ilk should only half count.
    And I’m with Bumba on the library comment.

  6. I agree with Beth Anne. Words like ‘twaddle’ and ‘ilk’ indicate that she is a well-read person.

  7. Being well read is a state of mind that exists in utopia. Now-a-days it is the feeling of being able to brag about ones’s exposure to the latest fashion and trends that is considered an indication of “having arrived”.

  8. According to this study, I would not be considered well-read because I get most of my books from the Public Library. (Bumba hit the nail on the head) You would think this study would have included the library because many people who are considered “well-read” are members of their local library.I don’t let studies, or statistics define me. Well-read people are smarter than that.

  9. I quickly looked up those well-read cities, and 5 of them are in Florida. I guess all those people are on the beach reading magazines or something. I’m offended that there was only one city in California, but I bet there would be more of us on the highest taxed list.

  10. I would say quality of the reading material is important, but people who are well read should strive to read books from lots of different genres, not just classics. I do like some classics, but I don’t feel obligated to like every “classic” book. For example, I hate Great Expectations! That might be to do with the fact I had to read it for my English GCSE, but I thought it was so dull! If I’m absolutely honest, I think people who claim to like all of the books which are considered great classics are probably just being pretentious.

  11. Florida must account for the newspaper sales bc old coots still buy newspapers. My city is filled with dozens of Half-Price Bookstores, so I’d think we were well-read, but I guess not. I can’t afford B & Noble retail, so I buy tons of clearance $3 and $1 books. Does that make me well-read? It’s a lot of books, just not Oprah-approved.

  12. A good balance between variety and quality makes someone a well-read person. 19th century classics might feature on all the top 100 lists but reading only those and nothing else doesn’t make you well read.

  13. I think it is not fair that a person is judged well-read by having read specific books. I personally find most of the famous classics boring and unreadable (it could be because of the old English)
    Also, based on the valuable knowledge gained from a book, should fiction be considered in the well-read category?

  14. I think that a well-read person is someone who enjoys reading and has several books that affect the way they look at the world. A well-read person wishes to challenge his or her mind with whatever works of literature they choose and can apply the way this literature made him or her think to other situations. I don’t know how my definition could apply to an entire city unless the researchers who made the list sat down and had personal conversations about literature with every citizen.

  15. I think a well read person enjoys reading and uses their choice in what they read to broaden their knowledge of the world. A well-read person picks different genres, time periods, topics and even different types of reading material to form a more whole view of society.

    But being well-read is not why readers read.
    Readers read because they love it. They can escape to a different place, explore new things and feel differently that they are in everyday life. As long as you’re enjoying it, who the hell cares if you’re well read.

    AND Regardless of what you’re reading, the act of reading is still more intellectually stimulating that becoming a vegetable in front of the television for hours on end every night.

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