How to be 'well-read' (even if you've lost your reading habit)
In a world of binge-able content and endless scrolling, what does it mean to be well-read?
I scandalised my 11th grade English teacher when I turned a seemingly simple writing assignment with the prompt ‘C’est la vie’ into a character study of a drug-abusing, narcissistic protagonist who saw visions of dead musicians. “Her writing abilities are far ahead than that of her peers, but the content worries me,” she told my mother at the next parent-teacher meeting.
I had just completed reading Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting and was clearly inspired. My mother brushed off my teacher’s concerns. “She’s fine, she just reads strange books.”
My teenage crisis of self-discovery involved reading a lot of said ‘strange books’. Everything from the syllabus-mandated Jane Austen and Shakespeare to Haruki Murakami, Vladimir Nabokov, Irvine Welsh and Toni Morrison. I considered myself to be well-read, and I took pride in it.
Studying English Literature in college took this self-aggrandising to a whole new level. I thought myself to be better than my friends because I could discuss Dante’s Inferno with ease, make a Marxist critique of Shelley’s Frankenstein and get into a heated ‘art vs artist’ debate about famed philosopher Martin Heidegger being a Nazi. I would make R-rated puns involving Michel Foucalt’s surname.
That was me: a self-proclaimed college intellectual. Before the bubble burst and post-graduation reality slapped me in the face.
My desire to always be well-read and ‘knowledgeable’ came from a strange kind of sibling rivalry. Let’s just say puberty hit my sister much earlier than it came to me. And it did her well. I grew tired of constantly being referred to as “oh, you’re her sister, na?” and not an individual in my own right. So I made knowledge my goal and intellect a strength to work towards, feeling validated when I knew something someone else didn’t.
My intellectual ego was nourished through college. But I soon found the workforce — a digital media company where I had to create engaging content for readers with a toddler’s attention span — had little use for my literary knowledge.
Spending my days constantly staring at a screen and words of various kinds, I lost the desire to read for fun. I’d scroll through random articles here and there, reading idly about historical figures or medical research. Fun facts and trivia replaced the intellectual orgasms of college as my ‘well-read’ badge slowly faded away. Today, it’s an oxidised antique, boxed away behind household chores, bills, analysing social media trends, and meeting deadlines.
I’m lucky to be working somewhere that enables me to write whatever I want. But no one wants to read a thesis on Mrs Rochester being the real victim in Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and I don’t know if I’m capable of writing one anymore.
I physically read a book, print, paper et al, from start to finish last month after many years. Re-reading The Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh seemed like a safe bet considering how much I loved it the first time.
I’d instead been listening to audiobooks this past year, taking in snippets of the story during commutes and while washing dishes. I watch video reviews of bestsellers, TED talks about interesting subjects, and skim through summaries of trending matters to stay up to date with what’s happening. More than that, to be able to have a conversation about it with others.
In an age of multiple OTT platforms, constant releases to binge-watch, bite-sized content on social media for depleting attention spans and a world that’s simultaneously crumbling but also racing by at a pace that probably only Dutee Chand and Usain Bolt could keep up with – what does it even mean now to be well-read?
I approached the Tweak readers with the same question. Of the 491 participants in a poll, 46% considered themselves to be well-read. I had expected more. Perhaps the other 54%, like myself, are trying to figure out what it means to be well-read nowadays.
Is it someone who reads a lot of non-fiction books? Does quality matter more than quantity, and who even gets to judge what is considered ‘quality’ when we have such varied tastes? Maybe the well-read person is the one who can breeze through the most challenging of books and make Sparknotes for the rest of us. Or perhaps it’s the one who can tell you in detail about the life of Maharani Gayatri Devi, after reading multiple biographies, and has fun facts at the tip of their tongues.
Some may consider Napoleon Bonaparte as among the world’s greatest military leaders, but he’s also someone who was attacked by a colony of cute, fluffy rabbits. I learnt this from a ‘fact of the day’ app.
So what does it mean to be well-read? Some readers who responded were on the same page as me, viewing it purely in a literary sense: A person who has read the classics. “Exposure to books of different eras, genres and authors,” wrote another reader. “Someone who has read at least one genre extensively, if not several.” Another reader said they’ll consider themselves to be well-read the day they “read more non-fiction than fiction.”
Writer Glory Edim, also known as Well-Read Black Girl, defines being well-read as someone who is “curious and looks at words and books as a method of investigation. So, whatever you’re reading, you’re really taking it in. You’re looking for substances, you’re looking for moments of pause and reflection and it gives you an opportunity to ask questions. I really think curiosity is key to being well-read.”
In a podcast interview, she adds that it’s time we look past the classics and the canon, which was primarily codified and selected by “a lot of old dead white men” with streaks of misogyny and colonialism, and look to the current richness and diversity of modern literature.
While I wholeheartedly agree, my dilemma still stands. Dealing with a daily information overload, I’m not the only one whose brain can’t regularly handle rich narratives, facts, and detailed explanations, however lovely the prose may be.
Reading can be de-stressing, entertaining, erotic even (have you tried reading feminist erotica?). But now, for me, to be well-read is to learn from books, or whatever it is that we’re reading. To take those ideas and apply them to our lives, share them with others, and learn more from each other. As one of our readers put it, “To question everything you read, and the more you read, the better your questions get.”
The long nights I’ve stayed awake, staring at my ceiling and contemplating how to fit into my smartypants again, I’ve realised that we need to stop taking ‘being well-read’ so literally. We’re a #blessed bunch for whom gaining knowledge and information isn’t limited to the medium of newspapers, radio, and books published in serialised chapters in literary magazines. We hold in the palm of our hands an ocean of knowledge with greater depths than the Mariana Trench.
We can get the knowledge we desire from books. But there as so many other mediums which have adapted to our fast-paced lifestyles and changing attitudes towards reading. Creative and engaging videos, audiobooks with film-scale sound productions, and apps that extract the highlights from favourite subjects.
If you’re like me and want to gain (re-gain) an ‘intellectual’ or ‘worldly’ tag without drowning in the pages of a book – or just don’t have the mental bandwidth right now to sit down with a book – then worry not. We’ve curated different methods and ways of learning, so you can listen, watch, and click your way towards a more open mind.
Walk the (TED) talk
By this point, I think we all know someone, or someone who knows someone, who has conducted a TED Talk. But just because it’s a saturated format doesn’t mean we should knock it. The fact that people from varied backgrounds around the world get onstage and share their knowledge gives us viewers access to so much more than we previously thought possible. It’s not purely an exchange of information; it’s told through personal stories, experiences, and life lessons that make it all the more relatable and engaging.
You can Google TED Talk about XYZ, and you’ll find at least one video related to the subject you’re looking for. It’s tough to not fall down a rabbit hole of related videos in the TED space.
From tips to be better organised, to how to talk to someone about your mental health, grief, productivity, how to be vulnerable, and how to be a good leader or have a better orgasm. There’s something for everyone.
Get smarter in seconds
We’re all for #wanderlust and #couplegoals (this jet-setting couple is mine) but beyond the filters, spon-cons and positivi-tea posts exist a plethora of educators sharing their expertise in bite-sized, easy-to-digest content for us laymen. From doctors and lawyers to sex educators, mental health professionals, and financial advisors.
My new go-to page is author Blair Imani’s who created a series called Smarter in Seconds (also the title of her book) where she (collaborating with other creators and professionals as well) creatively breaks down foundational points and trending subject matter related to race, class, gender, sexuality, health and more.
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Enrol in the School of Life
The School of Life is an organisation of psychologists, philosophers and writers who work in multiple ways: online classes, therapy sessions, corporate programs, articles and more. But my favourite is their YouTube channel. They create animated videos that I sometimes watch to destress. “We share ideas on how to understand ourselves better, improve our relationships, take stock of our careers and deepen our social connections — as well as find serenity and grow more confident in facing challenges.”
Each video runs anywhere from 3 to 7 minutes, where they dissect several topics related to overall wellness, individual thinkers and philosophers, and mental and physical health. Some of their videos can explain subjects, and others make you introspect, with them trying to answer questions we may have spent hours pondering, like, how to be kinder to ourselves, how to cope with emotional neglect, figuring out loneliness and more.
It could be a seemingly random thought like “why do we pick at our skin?” they’ll dedicate a video to and one of my personal favourites from their oeuvre, addressing why having a breakdown could be the best thing that happens to you.
App it up
Apps like Blinkist and StoryShots will take big ideas and break them down into highlights, bullet points and takeaways. These big ideas can be trending subjects, but mostly they’re books. While reading highlights of a book will not give you the same experience and emotional response as reading a book, you’ll know the basics to carry on the conversation about it or consider if it’s engaging your interest enough to dive into the whole book.
You can also follow certain themes that you find interesting, like startup culture, psychology, and health. The programs then curate reading lists for you to go through which you can read in a bite-size fashion or even plug in your headphones and listen to while driving (though each segment lasts only a few minutes). Both these apps have paid content but their free offering gives you a good taste of the knowledge pool.
Get your Freak(onomics) on
Freakonomics started off as a book, became a bestseller, then a documentary, more books and more (according to their own website). But it’s the Freakonomics Radio Network that we should be tuning in to, by which I mean their array of podcasts.
No Stupid Questions is a favourite among the Tweak team where Stephen J. Dubner (co-author of the Freakonomics books) and research psychologist Angela Duckworth bring their experiences and expertise to answer pretty much any question that they throw each other’s way. From the possible positive aspect of living in denial to why we love underdogs and a look at reverse psychology. The tone is casual, conversational and easy to follow even when they cite studies and the work of other researchers.
In the podcast, Freakonomics, M.D. physician and economist Dr Bapu Jena looks at topics within the realm of health, medicine and the economics of it all. In People I (Mostly) Admire Steven Levitt (co-author of the Freakonomics book) chats with high-achievers in different fields, from magicians and gameshow hosts to CEOs and Nobel Laureates.
There’s so much to learn from this one platform alone, you won’t have time to wonder when you stopped being able to assimilate knowledge the old fashioned way.