What Does it Mean to Be Well-Read?

The issue with being in higher education is that there are so many people here who seem absolutely desperate to prove how smart and cutting-edge their thinking is. Even I’m not always immune to this, but I like to think that I’m capable of admitting when I’m wrong or when I’ve said something foolish. That said, nobody likes being made a fool of, or talked down to, and again, I am no exception.

One thing that I have often noticed about this is that any time I get into an academic, philosophical disagreement with someone I am asked whether I have read so-and-so and if I am familiar with such-and-such book and/or theory. And here’s the thing: theories are useful. Studying manners of discourse can be essential toward enhancing communication. But hiding behind theoretical texts and thinking oneself — or at least portraying oneself as — better informed and therefore “right” because one is well versed in the ideology of so-and-so is ridiculous. Requiring that someone be “well-read” in order to have a discussion with them is elitist as hell. I’m not saying that one has to “dumb down” or reduce their level of discourse, but I am saying that if anything is to be achieved by a conversation, dismissing someone just because they aren’t familiar with the same ideological frameworks is incredibly divisive, and in my experience burning those bridges is not a useful enterprise.

I’m not unaware that in order for some conversations to work, everyone participating needs to be more or less on the same page in terms of having experience and knowledge about the background of what is being discussed. But I also think that ignoring what someone has to contribute to the conversation because they lack advanced knowledge of a topic and are speaking from a self-sourced opinion rather than one learned from studying the theories of someone else, or doing what might arguably be worse and talking down to them in order to invalidate that point of view, is incredibly harmful. And this harm is done not just to the person whose viewpoint and contribution are being sidelined, but also to the person dismissing them because they are losing out on an opportunity for collaboration and mutual consideration and respect as well.

When writing this post I did some deep thinking about why I feel this way, and what has caused this point of view for me. I know that there are things that are beyond my understanding right now because I lack the tools and language to fully digest them. I wondered if I myself was frustrated and feeling the urge to lash out because of my own fragility and the fact that I am feeling called out and stressed about my lack of education in many areas. And I’m trying to imagine everyone involved complexly to think about why interactions I’ve had in the past have happened the way that they did. The conclusion that I have come to is that I still think expecting everyone we interact with to be well-versed in various ideological frameworks is unreasonable and leads to frustration that could have been avoided for everyone involved. And I think that being dismissive and patronizing to people because they have not had the time and energy to participate to the same degree is hurtful. That said, it can be exhausting to cater to someone else who one disagrees with because they might get offended, and so I also completely understand why people chose not to do so. So I guess what I’m getting at is that there is no easy solution.

My fiancée gave me some valuable feedback upon reading a draft of this post. She expressed to me that she often has a hard time having philosophical or political conversations with people who haven’t read a lot of the same things she has, but it’s not because she thinks she’s necessarily better informed than them. Rather, it’s because her own thought is so grounded in a particular philosophical background that it’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t share that background. But she recognizes that the problem there isn’t their lack of this background, but her own difficulty translating her ideas into a more general framework. And when this happens, she doesn’t avoid discussion with these people, but rather tries to summarize the basics of the ideas she’s building off of, so they have an idea of where she’s coming from. It’s not easy to do, but it’s ultimately something she feels she has to do if she wants to be able to reach people, since it’s not fair or realistic to expect everyone to do a whole bunch of background reading before they try to talk about anything.

There is something to be said for having intimate and thorough knowledge of a subject. And when discussing something one knows well it can be frustrating to encounter a person who seems to know only a baseline. Furthermore, I know that depending on the level of sensitivity of a subject, speaking out of ignorance can be dangerous and complicated. And just because something feels intuitive doesn’t mean that it is correct. But at the same time, nothing is resolved by creating enormous barriers to entry.

So I’m wondering, if we want to erase these barriers to entry, how can we grapple with advanced concepts? Well, the solution then is to make sure that everyone is on the same page in terms of having equal opportunity, in this case in having the opportunity and ability to have read all the same things — equity in education. But is that really advocating for equity or simply for a form of homogeneity? No two people think in the same way, and we call come from ever-diversifying backgrounds. As time goes on and our world becomes more and more integrated homogeneity because less and less viable. The world is ever more diverse, and despite the inevitable pushback from the very people who oppress us against that which has only recently been improved, these newer generations are starting to use their voices. The world is moving forward; I have to believe that.

And so I’m wondering what there is to do, or what there is to say. And perhaps that is where theories come in handy. But I can’t get past my reluctance to engage with and cater to those who demand a high barrier to entry! Making something harder to understand than it needs to be alienates people from one’s position. So I have to wonder, what is the point?

At this point I’m fairly confident that I’m reinventing several wheels here, but it’s important for me to think about how these things interact and to isolate for myself what I think about the world and how I live in it, and this blog is a vehicle for that process. So does all this mean I’ll spend forever stewing in my own thoughts and not read the theories of others? Of course not. I love to read, and I love to read broadly. I just think that these strong barriers to entry damage the quality of dialogue. Because what does it mean to be “well-read”? At what point have I consumed enough words to be allowed to converse with the elite, the big thinkers? When will my brain be supplemented enough with the thoughts of others that I can share the thoughts of my own?

I guess, though, that that’s what a blog is for.



3 thoughts on “What Does it Mean to Be Well-Read?

  1. Great post! I think there is a lot of truth in this; some people certainly hide behind the theories and books they have read. They quote extracts of text and use complex language, but even then it doesn’t mean they are “intelligent”. Memorising a theory doesn’t make a person well-read – it just means they have a good memory.

    For me, being “well read” means reading diversely. Yes, you can be familiar with critical theories, but you can also be familiar with classics like Dracula and Frankenstein. You can also have read a lot of contemporary works and still be “well read”. An academic who quotes Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams may look ignorant and foolish if they are asked to give an opinion on the recent winner of the Man Booker Prize. It’s all about perspective, and I honestly believe you can be “well read” in any genre – as long as you’re reading! Happy blogging!


    1. Thanks! I completely agree re: memorizing theory, and I see what you mean about reading diversely. I feel as though I didn’t always read particularly diversely when I was younger, and it’s something that I’ve been trying to fix, and something that every much inspired this post. Though as you say, it really is all about perspective. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!


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