I’ve never been one for fashion, not in any sense of the word. I don’t wear trendy clothes; I tend more toward jeans and plain shirts and Doc Martens. I like pop music, but today’s stuff makes me chafe—give me the boy bands and one-hit wonders of the ’80s and ’90s, please. And though I believe I can honestly call myself an avid reader, I don’t often jump on books as soon as they’re released. In fact, I usually have little idea what’s coming up and coming out. I just don’t follow those lists like I should—or like I feel like I should if I want to call myself well-read.
But really, what does well-read mean, anyway? Does it mean keeping up with the times, or at least with the New York Times best-seller lists? Does it mean reading only what’s considered “real” literature, as opposed to the poppy works of Stephen King and the sci-fi, fantasy, and YA novels I enjoy? Does it mean having a deep knowledge of the “classics”? Because I happen to have a seething, lifelong aversion to them, which means I’m not up on my Austen and Dickens, and The Catcher in the Rye gives me hives; I tried last year to read Jane Eyre but gave up before she even met Mr. Rochester because I was dying of boredom (though Thandie Newton’s narration of the audiobook is phenomenal).
There have been some classics I have read and enjoyed. Fahrenheit 451. The Great Gatsby. Frankenstein. To Kill a Mockingbird. Pretty much the entirety of the Shakespeare canon. But it’s a decidedly short list. Does this make me any less of a reader? Some would say so, and I’ll admit it does make me feel that way sometimes too. As a professional book editor, former ghostwriter, and current blogger about books, I feel like I should have that foundation; I should be well-read in the classics and have a working knowledge of their storylines, themes, and historical contexts so I can compare other works to them. Because the classics are the gold standard, right? The bar by which the worth of all other literature must be set?
Well, not so in my world. And to be honest, I think I get along fine without them. Because I have my own classics. Those titles I’ll go back to again and again and reread in part or in whole whenever I need some literary comfort food or inspiration. The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton. The Secret History by Donna Tartt. The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice (yes, really—it was my bible when I was fifteen/sixteen). Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. Titles that bring me back to the times and places when and where I read them, that still speak to me in some way after so many years.
And isn’t that what makes a classic book a classic anyway? Its ability to tell us something about ourselves whether we’re reading it at the time it’s published or a hundred years later? The old white folks who wrote the officially sanctioned classics don’t have a corner on that market, you know. There are—do I even need to say this?—plenty of other diverse voices out there whose words are just as meaningful, just as timeless and important.
To reflect this, I adhere to a different definition of the term well-read. Instead of meaning that you read all the correct things, the fashionable things as far as the literary institutions are concerned, I believe it simply means that you read a lot. Because I do, and I read a wide variety of titles because I believe, as is true in all aspects of life, variety is what matters. It’s what makes the world interesting. If we were all the same—if we all listened to the same music and watched the same movies and read the same books and wore the same clothes and ate the same food—how boring would that be? We need that diversity, that broad range of stories and authors, in order to experience the world in full. Even the dictionary backs me up on this one—Merriam-Webster defines well-read as “well-informed or deeply versed through reading.” That is exactly what I’m talking about.
Besides, I will forever be a thirteen-year-old girl trapped in a middle-aged woman’s body, and you can have my YA novels when you pry them from my cold, dead, glitter-painted fingernails.
PS—I would love to hear about other people’s personal classics. Leave a comment with your list!