Free Yourself: The Pressure to Be “Well Read” and Why It Shouldn’t Matter

Posted April 18, 2014 by Cristina (Girl in the Pages) in Bookish Thoughts, Discussions / 5 Comments


I’ll let you in on a secret.

I’ve never felt that I’ve been “well read” enough to be an English major.

Let’s face it- English majors are often literary elitists. They scoff at reading King Lear or The Wife of Bath in Brit Lit 201 because they’ve already done in it high school. They line up to take that voluntary Shakespeare class. They’ll respond to something that happens with the phrase “Oh, that’s very (enter author’s name here).”

It’s intimidating, and often discouraging, when you’re the only one who has to read The Great Gatsby sophomore year of college in a single night because everyone else had to pick it up in high school (and in eleventh grade I was saddled with an English teacher who blatantly ignored the required reading list). Four years after choosing my major I’m writing my senior thesis on Harry Potter, and I still get the occasional scoffs and eye-rolls, because what I’m working with is “not real literature.” There’s a real anxiety when older people ask who my favorite authors are and I just think they’re not going to understand when I say Rowling, Rowell, Clare, and Armentrout.

After expressing my hidden concerns to my very professor that is overseeing my senior thesis and who has never read Harry Potter, she advised me that I really needed to “free myself” from the social anxiety and stigma of how much canonical literature I’ve read. She said even among faculty and PhD students the elitism is there, but that it is often not a reflection of the intellectual level, or academic performance, of most people. Who gets to decide what’s in the canon anyways? And why is there such stigma about what can be added? Why is there such as fear of children’s literature that it’s now given its own awards and lists so that it doesn’t compete with other literature? And how can reading contemporary be any less valid than classical, when one day contemporary texts may very well be “canonical?”

It’s not that I detest literature from the canon. In fact, I’m reading a Steinbeck novel right now and really enjoying it. It’s that I’ve always gravitated toward reading things that interested me, and that I could relate to, rather than reading so that I can brag about my extensive experience with classical literature. I’m so tired of arbitrary lists that deem “100 Best Books of All Time” by whose standards my literary experience are measured against. Reading canonical books did not foster my love for reading, rather reading the books that caught my eye and absorbed me more than any form of film or music could is what made me a voracious reader. And maybe for some people those books were Catcher in the Rye and Romeo and Juliet, but for me they were Harry Potter, The Princess Diaries, and Walk Two Moons. And now in my spare time I want to indulge in books of my preferred genre (YA and Adult fiction) rather than trying to achieve some intangible status of being “well read” because of how many books I’ve read off of a certain list.

Am I the only one who feels this way? I think that being “well read” is an extremely subjective term and I’d say I’d base it off of the amount of texts and the amount of engagement individuals have with those texts, rather than what those texts are. What do you think the term “well read” means? Have you ever faced social or academic stigma because of what you’ve read? Do you find yourself pushing to read more “classical literature,” or is your TBR list determined by your own whims and preferences? Do you think there should be more variation in the books students read in school? Let me know in the comments- I think these are important questions that merit important discussions!

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5 responses to “Free Yourself: The Pressure to Be “Well Read” and Why It Shouldn’t Matter

  1. You’re not the only one who feels that way – I had much the same experience going through University (admittedly I indulged their insistence on what were acceptable reads). But even now, after a short time since graduating, the books I longed to do a thesis on are now required reading. It takes time for opinion to change, time to show which literary works stand and prove worthy. And maybe as people like us who value these new books, push for their inclusion as the older generation of Literary Professors retire, and the list of classics starts to include reads from our childhood. It’s an arduously slow process of books getting vetted over generations: but take strength, for you are not alone… maybe we can start an underground movement and overturn our oppressors and bring to the world modern day classics which don’t need a second degree to decipher, and force the elitists who arch their brow when we dare mention our opinions into dark musty rooms from whence they came. Revolution!

    LOL.. I think I just pulled something.

    • I’d love to join your revolution! Maybe the solution is we have to become professors and spread this open-minded awareness to new generations? I have heard of some strides in school reading lists now that include more contemporary pieces that weren’t there when I was in high school, but I still regret that my college didn’t offer any YA or children’s literature classes. And honestly, those books are the most important in some ways because it’s what’s influencing children’s thoughts and ideas. There’s so much here to think about!

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving your thoughts! I’m curious- what books did you want to do your thesis on?

      • I wanted to do a thesis on Usula LeGuin’s books, I enjoyed how gender perception & feminism was an underlying theme in many of her science fiction novels.

        Graduating 20 years ago, it’s great to see her novels in some of the courses I took available for today’s students exploring those same themes.

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