One of the few columns I regularly read is the Observer’s Book Clinic, where authors, publishers and literary aficionados answer reader queries. Previous topics include books on architecture to representation of LGBTQ characters in fiction.
This week’s latest column is a discussion on what is the required reading to be awarded the distinction of being “well read”. Former Observer literary editor Robert McCrum catalogues the literature which, in his self-acknowledged personal opinion, is what it takes to be worthy of the title “well read”. His list is extensive, featuring Greco-Roman classics to poets to playwrights to modern literary classics. Predictably, the comments section is also a hot-bed of debate, with one of the key criticisms being the paucity of international literature. Additionally, there is a palpable absence of science fiction and fantasy classics, and little in the way of non-fiction and philosophy.
The term “well-read” is believed to date from the late 16th century, according to the Merriam Webster dictionary, and predates literary colossuses such as Dickens, Austen and even Shakespeare, who are now ubiquitous features of any “Top X books you must read” lists. The concept was well known to Jane Austen, such that Mr Darcy listed it in his so-called “accomplished woman” criteria:
“All this she must possess,” added Darcy, “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”
Reading the Observer article prompted me to think about myself and my reading habits. I am a self-confessed bookworm, although I currently read much less than I would like due to other constraints on my time. My tastes are diverse – I’ll read Mary Shelley one week, Agatha Christie the next, followed by Neil Gaiman, and Carrie Fisher. I read graphic novels and comic books alongside philosophy and popular science.
As McCrum acknowledges, the checklist for being well-read is highly personal and subjective. Back when I was in secondary school, whenever an assignment for reading a book of your choice and writing an essay on it was given out, we were strictly warned against using so-called genre fiction. Stephen King and Marian Keyes were the only authors explicitly banned by name, but the implication was that science fiction and romance were deemed lesser in the eyes of our curriculum. (I encourage you to read this discussion between Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro, part of which is a discussion of literary versus genre fiction).
My own “well-read” list controversially contains many examples of genre fiction, and even a handful of graphic novels. My high school English teachers may balk, but to me, a well-read individually is also extensively read, for how can one claim to a lover and student of the written word if profound and beautiful works are excluded on a purely on a basis of genre snobbery? Is Fahrenheit 451 not a work of speculative science fiction? Is Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera not simultaneously a profound exploration into a tortured psyche as well as being labelled a “penny dreadful”? Is The Sandman graphic novel series not only story-telling par excellence, but filled with literary dialogue, Greek and Norse mythology, Biblical allusions, obscure history figures (such as Joshua Norton, self-proclaimed Emperor of the United States), and a brilliant example of the literary potential of the visual medium?
So, to my own thoughts on what is absent from a list of books which my hypothetical well-read individual might wish to peruse…
- Antigone, by Sophoceles
- Beowulf, author(s) name lost to history
- The Epic of Gilgamesh, author(s) name lost to history
- The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu: an 11th century Japanese epic, often purported to be one of the earliest novels ever written
- Grimm’s Fairy Tales, collected by the Brothers Grimm; One Thousand and One Nights, multiple authors, and Fairy Tales, by Hans Christian Andersen
- The Blazing World, by Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle: one of the first science fiction works
- The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie; an interesting twist on the murder mystery novel
- Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
- Dracula, by Bram Stoker: modernity versus the monster
- North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell: Margaret Hale, one of literature’s original SJWs.
- The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien: a children’s adventure story set in a fantastical world populated by hobbits, dwarves, wizards, elves, goblins and dragons; followed by the revelation that this world is actually in the decline, with the true age of “high fantasy” now in the distant past.
- The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Expurery
- A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle
- The Pearl; Of Mice and Men; East of Eden by John Steinbeck
- Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe, by George Eliot (the nom de plume of Mary Anne Evans)
- Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier
- The Phantom of the Opera, by Gaston Leroux.
- The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka
- The Female Man, by Joanna Russ
- Neuromancer, by William Gibson
- Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury: ironically one of the most censored books in US schools
- The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
- The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark
- The collected works of Neil Gaiman
- Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
- The Discworld series by Terry Pratchett. Also
- Sophie’s World, by Jostein Gardaar: philosophy lessons through correspondence and startling revelations about the nature of existence (no spoilers!)
- The collected works of Roald Dahl
- Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke: wonderful complex mythos alongside an authentically written Victorian voice
- Things Fall Apart, by Chinau Achebe
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, and its sequels: don’t panic, never leave home without your towel, and never let the Vogons read you their poetry…
- Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
- The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling: one of the biggest literary phenomena of the 21st
- Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll
- The Chronicles of Narnia, by C. S. Lewis
- The Man Who Was Thursday; and The Napoleon of Notting Hill, by G. K. Chesterton
Short Stories and Poetry
- The Cask of Amontillado, by Edgar Allen Poe: amongst the greatest use of irony in fiction.
- The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson
- Tam O’Shanter and Ae Fond Kiss by Robert Burns
- Dulce et Decorum Est, and other poems, by Wilfred Owen
- The Rocking Horse Winner, by D. H. Lawrence
Non-fiction and Philosophy
- A Vindication on the Rights of Women, by Mary Wollstonecraft: a feminist text which pre-dates the word itself.
- The Prince, by Nicolo Machievelli
- The Art of War, by Sun Tzu
- The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank: lest we forget.
- Harry’s Last Stand, by Harry Leslie Smith: Dickensian poverty and inequality was still around in living memory of some, and is slowly creeping back. As the man himself says: Don’t let my past become your future
- A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking
- On Fairy Tales, by J. R. R. Tolkien
- A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolfe
- When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanthi.
- Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande
- Ten Days in a Mad-House, by Nellie Bly: one of the first female investigative journalists, Bly’s horrifying account of her time at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum in New York in the 1880s was responsible for numerous reforms
- A Bunny’s Tale, by Gloria Steinem
- Dreams from my Father, by Barack Obama
Graphic Novels and Manga
- Persepolis and Chicken with Plums, by Marjane Satrapi.
- The Sandman, by Neil Gaiman, and its various spin offs
- Ms Marvel: Generation Why, by G. Willow Wilson: perhaps my most controversial inclusion on the list, this graphic novel captures the zeitgeist of my generation.
- Death Note, by Tsugumi Ohba.
In the name of full disclosure, I admit to being neither a student nor teacher of literature and language. I read for pleasure, for relaxation, to learn. Required reading lists are for classes and education, and I don’t necessarily subscribe to this in my own life.
What books do you think a “well read” individual should read?