The Impossible Prerequisite of Being Well-Read
(Photo Credit: Lacie Slezak)
By Brittany Coppla
My parents never read to me when I was a child. Despite this, I’ve carried a journal since before I could write, and I feel at my most comfortable when a pen is tucked in my bun.I never felt hindered by my non-literary home until I entered my MFA program.
When I talk with friends about the early texts that inspired their writing careers, the words, “What do you mean you’ve never read—?” barrel towards me after A Wrinkle in Time inevitably comes up. Or A Little Prince. Or Where the Wild Things Are. Even when Harry Potter surfaces, as it so often does outside of the classroom, nothing needs to be said.
When titles like these instigate interrogation, I defend myself for the sake of preventing others’ pity. My instinct is to respond, “But I could recite Jamberry by the time I was five!” (not that most writers are impressed by my rehearsal of a little-known book printed on cardboard pages). But instead, I default to sticking up for my parents, although I’m not always convinced by my defense either. It’s as if the reputability of the books they shared with me indicated the quality of my childhood or, worse yet, the quality of our relationship.
After entering the MFA, I realized that children’s and young adult books were only the launch pad for my defenses. Both in the classroom and outside of it, I constantly felt like I must have faked sick from school the day that everyone else received the lifelong syllabus for cultivating a well-read repertoire. After earning a Bachelor’s degree in English with a concentration in literature, I assumed I had my bases covered. Shakespeare, Salinger, Steinbeck, Shelley. And that’s just the Ss.
But, not far into my first semester, I learned that there were so many others who I hadn’t read and, admittedly, some I hadn’t even recognized. Austen, Tolstoy, Woolf, Murakami, Chomsky, Twain, Rowling.
One last time for effect: Rowling.
I made an active effort to fill the gaps. But regardless of how hard I tried, I kept falling short. I experimented first with James Joyce. Instead of reading Ulysses, I selected The Dubliners. This was wrong. Then, I tried Jane Austen. Instead of reading Pride and Prejudice, I chose Emma.
Halfway through my first semester, I googled, “how to be well-read,” since my misguided selections weren’t providing much progress. I don’t know what I anticipated, but my screen was stacked with self-help listicles: “Books to Read to be Considered Well Read” and “24 Books that Will Make You a More Well-Rounded Person.” Everyone had hosted some rendition of this conversation—Bustle, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Atlantic.
It seemed to me like anyone searching these terms, a writer or not, must be doing so to pacify a feeling of insufficiency. I was one of these people.
In the same microsecond of time it took for Google to spit out these thousands of search results, I concluded there was no way I could summit this unending list of requirements in order to identify as “well-read.” Not, at least, as defined by these standards.
The disconnect lies in a single fact: I read everyday. I read small literary journals, articles from acclaimed newspapers, New York Times best sellers, digital magazines, collections of poetry—the list goes on. Amidst the mental scan of my literary resumé, I realized not all the reading that I accomplish will satisfy another requirement on the well-read syllabus. In fact, most of the reading that I pursue won’t.
I’m grateful everyday for the way my MFA program introduces me to stories and experiences that in no way resemble mine, whether on the page or through a person sitting next to me in class. But, despite what a liberal and progressive environment the MFA program is, it astonishes me how often students need to flaunt their knowledge of canonized texts. Oftentimes, this flex really does feel like a necessity. I think there’s been a shift from hoping we read well to proving we read right.
Imagine if such a thing as a “Well-Read” book aisle existed. I see the same names printed and reprinted on different editions with the same titles. Everything is in English. All the pages explore some man’s hardships, and that’s not an alternative for “mankind.” When texts that would be shelved in this aisle are referenced, I become increasingly aware of the fine line between establishing credibility and establishing a hierarchy.
I’m not arguing that we don’t need to read these books. I have found solace in Atticus Finch’s, Holden Caulfield's, and so many others’ stories. But at what point do I stop prioritizing this unending checklist and make room for the stories that haven’t been deemed “required reading”? To quantify this prerequisite seems counterintuitive. As I continue to navigate the literary terrain, I’m still trying to determine a unit of measurement for assessing when I can deem myself “well-read.”
I still struggle sometimes when another student in my class quotes a classic that everyone else claims to have read at least three times cover to cover. In these moments, I recall that to be well-read is not to be able to rehearse Ophelia’s monologue, or to know that the meaning of life is 44 (or is it 42? I can never remember). Being well-read is not reducing literature to a quota. There are many things that being well-read is not. And although it’s difficult to define what reading well is, I know this: every story—whatever story that may be— helps.
Brittany Coppla is a nonfiction candidate pursuing her MFA at Sarah Lawrence College, where she is the digital editor for LUMINA Journal. She often writes poetry and nonfiction about in-between spaces, sleep, memory, and bodies (but also has a bad habit of writing about earlobes). Her work has found homes in the anthology The Anatomy of Desire, Red Queen Literary Magazine, Asterism, Colonnades, Visions, and more. She likes when people call her B, and her day-to-day words can be found on Twitter.