Book Chat | On being ‘well read’ (part 1)

Hey everyone!

When you hear the words – ‘well read’, what comes to mind? What does it mean to be ‘well read’?

From my observations over the years, I realized being ‘well read’ was synonymous with being knowledgable in the ‘Classics’ – which typically comprise of the works of English writers like William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Joseph Conrad, Charlotte Brontë ; American writers like John Steinbeck, Harper Lee, Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger, F. Scott Fitzgerald ; Canadian writers like Margaret Atwood‎, Lucy Maud Montgomery and a myriad of other books by WHITE writers.

Image via Arao Ameny’s Instagram

The concept of being ‘well read’ is very subjective and personal. In my opinion, there’s more to being ‘well read’ than being well-versed in the work of white writers or books we were forced to read in English Literature class.

I was curious to find out how other readers defined being ‘well read’, so I asked some of my favorite readers and writers I follow and interact with via Twitter, Goodreads and Instagram. In this book chat, three of my favorite readers and writers will enlighten us on what it means to be ‘well read’, with some recommendations on which authors and/or books we should indulge in to be considered ‘well read’, per their views on the concept.

Enjoy!

 

Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed is an African book lover who’s the creator behind the blog – Bookshy, where she’s been blogging about African literature since 2011. Her wonderful African Book Covers (ABC) Tumblr page, which celebrates African book cover art inspired my book covers showcase here at African Book Addict! Check out her thoughts on being ‘well read’:

  • What does being ‘well read’ mean to you?
The first word that popped into my head when I read the question was ‘informed’, then I thought ‘very informed’, but that word (like ‘well read’) can take on many different meanings.

By ‘informed’ I mean that the reader knows a lot about many things because they have been able to read a lot.

Similar to a well-travelled person, who has been to way too many places. In that sense, a well-read person has read way too many books and so is informed by so many things.

That was my initial thought.

As I kept on thinking, I felt that ‘well read’ is pretty subjective. How many books does it take to become well read? Also, you might be well-read in one particular genre, but not in every single genre ever.

You might be well-read in your field of research. For example, ask me about gender and urbanisation or about paid domestic work and I’ll probably be able to list the key authors and what their arguments are. Ask me about contemporary African literature (in English) and I would like to think I’d able to hold my own with other ‘well-read’ African lit readers. Ask me about Literature from Ethiopia in Amharic (don’t bother), about anything IT or tech-related (seriously, don’t bother).

So, I wouldn’t take well-read purely as the number of books you’ve read since you started reading. I would take it as being very informed as a result of the number of books you’ve read. I also wouldn’t necessarily see well read as being well read in one genre, but being well read across a range: say, fiction, history, non-fiction, art etc.

Although I try not to be prescriptive as to what that entails, a lot of the ‘well-read’ people I know have read the classics, read a lot of non-fiction, as well as newspapers and magazines, and a variety of fiction.

  • Which books and/or authors should be on our reading lists, given your take on what it means to be ‘well read’?

Tough and I wouldn’t even know which 5 to select, but I would definitely include Buchi Emecheta on my list and bell hooks. Currently reading Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” so would include that. Sylvia Tamale’s “African Sexualities: A Reader”. My list could go on and on. So I’ll leave it at 4 and leave the 5th one blank – as there are many possibilities.

 


David DaCosta is a Goodreads friend and author who’s views I admire. Since 2002, he’s written an autobiography, two novellas set in Jamaica, a book of poetry, and is currently working on his debut novel. Whenever I’m looking for my next read by a Caribbean writer, I usually like to pick books that DaCosta has reviewed on Goodreads. I appreciate his critical book reviews and hope you all enjoy his thoughts on the concept of being ‘well read’:

  • What does being ‘well read’ mean to you?

‘Well read’ encompasses the spectrum of various mediums of writing, whether literary, newspaper, magazine etc.

  • Which books and/or authors should be on our reading lists, given your take on what it means to be ‘well read’?

As a person who has alternated between living in Jamaica and Toronto for decades now, I have a natural leaning toward Caribbean literature. Earl Lovelace is the greatest author the Caribbean has produced. “The Dragon Can’t Dance” and “The Wine of Astonishment” are masterpieces. Trinidad & Tobago holds Earl Lovelace in high esteem, as they should.

Haitians should hoist Edwidge Danticat high on their shoulders. Her output over the past decade has been stellar. “Create Dangerously” and “Claire of the Sea Light” are both first-rate contributions to the literary world, each representing the best in fiction and nonfiction. Danticat’s latest offering “The Art of Death” further exemplifies her significant talents.

Octavia E. Butler is the definition of genius. I’ve had the privilege of reading five selections of her work (Xenogenesis trilogy, “Parable of the Sower” and “Fledgling”). The common thread that connects them all is a frighteningly authentic sense of realism. As an author, she really takes you there with well researched narratives and immaculate character development. It always amazes me how a black woman became the greatest author in a white dominated genre like Science Fiction. May she rest in peace.

I’ve read my share of works by African authors, mostly Nigerian. “Kehinde” by Buchi Emecheta remains my favorite. The novel truly represents female empowerment in its purest form. Having been raised by a strong woman, I gravitated to this particular protagonist’s character arc. I literally just learned that Miss Emecheta passed away earlier this year. May you rest peacefully my sister.

I’d be remiss If I didn’t make mention of author Uwem Akpan. I stumbled across his powerful collection of stories from the continent one day in 2008 while perusing the ‘Recommended’ shelf at a local library in Toronto. “Say You’re One of Them” stared back at me, daring me to pick it up. Taking its challenge, I did so, studying the front and back covers and eventually checking the book out. Once I began reading, I was hooked. The fact that it explored various countries throughout Africa made it all the more engaging. I can’t say enough about the exceptional level of writing contained within. Oprah eventually introduced the book to the world by making it an official Book club selection the following year.

 


Leslie Reese is the curator of the blog – Folklore & Literacy, where she muses on reading, writing, people, and culture. I enjoy Leslie’s thoughtful pieces as well as her love of literature and occasional book reviews that go beyond the books and storylines, but delve into her past experiences, her skilled photography, her appreciation for first edition book covers and artwork. Leslie is also a loyal visitor and commenter here on African Book Addict! which I deeply appreciate! Check out her thoughts on being ‘well read’:

  • What does being ‘well read’ mean to you? 

I kind of love this question, and I would probably answer it differently for ever year of my reading life!  Today, I’m going to say that being well-read means having an insatiable appetite for reading books that:

(1) nourish my imagination and spirit and tickle my “funny bone;”

(2) challenge me, that teach me things, and make me feel compassion for myself and others;

(3) make me feel connected to my ancestors, as well as connected to people with whom I never expected to share an affinity;

(4) inspire me to be more of myself;

(5) make me feel awestruck/ “blow my mind!”

  • Which books and/or authors should be on our reading lists, given your take on what it means to be ‘well read’?

The only way I can not be overwhelmed trying to answer this question is to select a sampling of works that made me feel awestruck/“blew my mind!” on my first encounter, and continue to feel fresh and striking anytime I open their pages to read from them, again.   

Sula by Toni Morrison

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I Love Myself When I Am Laughing and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive (A Zora Neale Hurston Reader) edited by Alice Walker

The Collected Poetry of Aimé Césaire translated and with notes by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith

A People’s History of the United States 1492 – present by Howard Zinn (1999 edition)

Art on My Mind by bell hooks

The Book of Embraces by Eduardo Galeano

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

What does being ‘well read’ mean to YOU?

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25 thoughts on “Book Chat | On being ‘well read’ (part 1)

    1. Thanks for stopping by! I like your take on the concept, especially the ‘across geographies’ aspect. I wish ‘The Classics’ were not the standard to being well read. It just highlights how white-washed our English Lit required reading lists are.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Hi Darkowaa – I’ve been a follower of Bookshy, but David DaCosta and Arao Ameny are new to me so thank you for introducing us – I already started following them😊. I really like Zahrah’s comments regarding being well-informed as a result of one’s reading, and also how you can be well-read in some areas while being totally clueless in others! I’m glad David reminded me of the importance of reading across a spectrum of media.
    I’ve yet to read anything by Earl Lovelace so I’ll have to put him on the list for 2018!

    I’m tickled to be part of this book chat, and I look forward to Part Two! Thank you for the invitation. There’s a visual gift for you on my blog, today. I hope you like it!
    http://folkloreandliteracy.com/2017/11/😘to-the-african-book-addict-with-love/

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! I totally agree, being ‘well read’ has always been portrayed as having read the white canon, which is such a narrow field of reading.I really like Leslie Reese’s definition, it captures the joy and adventure of reading 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed, there is so much more to being ‘well read’ than ‘The Classics’. I agree, Leslie’s definition is more about feeling, which is an important aspect of reading people usually forget. Thanks for always stopping by!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I always believed well read to mean cross genre, cross cultural, cross any barrier set and defined. Reading outside of the classical box. Knowing of the well known classics to the independent basement writers novellas and poets shamed and unnamed. From critical thinkers to soap box preachers teaching lessons through The Final Call. The Who’s who list on the top one hundred NY Times best seller list does not make one well read at all. 😁

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I totally agree with ‘The Who’s who list on the top one hundred NY Times best seller list does not make one well read at all’. TOTALLY agree! And just reading books by Chimamanda and/or Achebe don’t make you a ‘well read’ / ‘diverse’ reader either. There are so many layers to this! We could throw shade all day hahaa.

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  4. Great discussion, Darkowaa, and I’m glad for the book recs too. I like all the answers, though I connect more with Zahrah’s because hers reflects my own opinion on the topic. I too think a well-read person is someone who reads widely and not just books. I don’t consider myself well-read though I read a variety of things because the majority of what I read is fantasy by white authors.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Very interesting discussion. I like Karen’s definition of being well-read as “reading widely across genres and geographies.”

    I find as I get older, I read a narrower spectrum of genres but I have been trying to expand my geographies. I’m particularly interested in reading from Africa and from South America, as these continents have been grossly under-represented in my lifetime reading record.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Debbie! I like Karen’s definition as well, though being ‘well read’ for me goes beyond geographical boundaries and genres, but more of gaining empathy and growing as a human being from the books we read. So many people read ‘diversely’, but still harbor the same discriminatory views and politics. *sigh* Its such a subjective concept!

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  6. Thank you for an excellent discussion. I agree that well-read can vary, and I love my friend Leslie’s idea that it could have a different answer every year. I consider myself well-read in certain genres; I generally have a biography, a detective story, and some sort of how-to book (generally about writing) underway at the same time. I feel at sea about what to do next if they all end at the same time.
    Meanwhile, I agree that there are some genres that are a mystery to me (in the insoluble sense). Yet maybe, like ‘new’ foods that friends persuade me to try, I’ll find a new genre to my liking.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well said, Margaret! Its such a subjective concept. For me being ‘well read’ goes beyond geographical boundaries and genres; it involves growth and gaining empathy as a citizen of the world, through the books we read.

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  7. Great discussion Darkowaa. Thank you for introducing me to the three participants. I didn’t know about them before reading this post. I also appreciate all the book recommendations. My views about being well-read are similar to BookTalker’s. I just think of it as reading widely, diverse genres and on different themes.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Though it would be easy to say we should read people like Ralph Ellison and/or Franz Fanon… I think being “well read” is already a loaded phrase, considering the vast amount of ancient tradition and thought handed down without books or writing. Henry Odera Oruka’s work revealed that the “philosophical sagacity” of various sub-Saharan wise men and women need not be ignored because it was oral/aural.

    So in light of that concept, maybe to be “well ‘read'” can be a much more exciting, vibrant process… because music by The Art Ensemble of Chicago or Mos Def, collages by Romare Bearden, critical theory by bell hooks, multimedia work by Terry Adkins and such can thus inform and educate as much (maybe even more so in the 21st century) than sitting around reading Plato, if Oruka’s philosophical sagacity can be found to exist in some manner in a medium…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is excellent! Thanks so much for the contribution. I TOTALLY agree. Being well read can and should encompass other forms of art, including music. I absolutely LOVE that you mentioned Mos Def. His ‘Black On Both Sides’ album is indeed my idea of being well versed (no pun intended) on the art of words, rap, society. Thank you for passing by! Please do come back when you have time 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well thank you for your kind words! My saxophone teacher (Ornette Coleman) won a Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for his philosophical sagacity in concept and sound, so I owe him a HUGE debt for his wisdom and guidance. And “Hip Hop” by Mos Def should be required listening/reading all over the world!

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  9. Great post. I agree with a lot of the choices – Edwidge and Zora especially are two of my favourites, and of course Toni and Earl…Octavia who I haven’t read yet but already love for being a speculative fiction pioneer. As for the question, I think a distinction can be made between being well read and being widely read; a person can be well read in a particular region or genre of literature but their view may still be very limited (e.g. steeped in American or European literature (or even a particular region within those broad geographies) but never having even sampled African or Caribbean or Asian etc. literature). The thing is that usually when people say well read, they’re typically referring to knowledge about Western (usually white and specifically American and British with maybe some French and Russian thrown in) classics. Well, I read my share of Shakespeare and Chaucer and Dickens and Austen etc. growing up but it was only when I was older that I sought out and read Hurston, Walker, Hughes etc. and as I continue to grow as a reader, my tastes continue to expand. I continue to discover my own Caribbean literary canon (as someone raised in the former British West Indies). By my own experience and by how I’ve framed this response, my definition of being well read means being curious and continuing to engage with literature from all parts of the globe, engaging with the classics and the new voices as much as is possible – but always staying curious and engaged.

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    1. I appreciate your perspective. I think there’s a difference between English Literature and British Literature — and that’s not just writing as someone with Scottish heritage, wink. Too many courses titled the former are really the latter — not that there isn’t value in BOTH. The problem, which needs the curiosity and engagement you mention, is that so many writers around the world write in English from so many perspectives. Thank you for a valuable way to widen my own perspective.

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