Are You Well-Read?

I’m stealing this from Jen at The Relentless Reader (who borrowed it from Sarah at Sarah Says Read). The original list is posted on Book Riot with quite the discussion going (50 Shades is always going to be a controversial choice due to both the poor writing and the fact that it’s fan fiction).

“Isn’t it strange that we have the term “well-read” but absolutely no one can come close to defining it? And isn’t also strange that other art forms don’t have equivalent terms for a vague sense of someone’s total experience of that form (well-seen for movies? well-heard for music? Absurd).

Thinking about this recently sucked me into a little thought-experiment: say someone had never read any literature and wanted to be well-read. What should they read? And how many books would it take them to get close?

This hypothetical forces any given answerer to do two things: provide their personal definition of well-read and then give a list of books that might satisfy that definition. The first hurdle to clear is cultural position: who is this person? As I can only provide a reasonable list of books from my own cultural position, I have to assume that this person is like me, at least in a very basic way: an alive American who can read English.

“Well-read” for this person then has a number of connotations: a familiarity with the monuments of Western literature, an at least passing interest in the high-points of world literature, a willingness to experience a breadth of genres, a special interest in the work of one’s immediate culture, a desire to share in the same reading experiences of many other readers, and an emphasis on the writing of the current day.

The following 100 books (of fiction, poetry, and drama) is an attempt to satisfy those competing requirements. After going through several iterations of the list, one thing surprised me: there are not as many “classic” books that I associate with the moniker well-read, and many more current books than I would have thought. Conversely, to be conversant in the literature of the day turned out to be quite a bit more important than I would have thought…” (Book Riot)


Are you well-read? But really, can you define well-read?
*denotes that I own a copy of that particular title in personal library (I am a book hoarder)

So here’s the list, in alphabetical order:

  1. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  2. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle*
  3. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  4. All Quiet on the Western Front by Eric Maria Remarque*
  5. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay  by Michael Chabon*
  6. American Pastoral by Philip Roth
  7. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  8. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  9. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
  10. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath*
  11. Beloved by Toni Morrison
  12. Beowulf
  13. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak*
  14. Brave New World by Alduos Huxley*
  15. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
  16. The Call of the Wild  by Jack London
  17. Candide by Voltaire*
  18. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer*
  19. Casino Royale by Ian Fleming*
  20. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller*
  21. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger*
  22. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White*
  23. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
  24. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
  25. The Complete Stories of Edgar Allan Poe
  26. The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor
  27. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen*
  28. Crime & Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky*
  29. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
  30. Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
  31. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
  32. Dream of Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin
  33. Dune by Frank Herbert
  34. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
  35. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury*
  36. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
  37. Faust by Goethe
  38. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  39. Game of Thrones by George RR Martin*
  40. The Golden Bowl by Henry James
  41. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
  42. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn*
  43. The Gospels
  44. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck*
  45. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  46. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald*
  47. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
  48. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  49. Harry Potter & The Sorceror’s Stone by J.K. Rowling*
  50. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  51. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
  52. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams*
  53. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien*
  54. House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday
  55. Howl by Allen Ginsberg
  56. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins*
  57. if on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino
  58. The Iliad by Homer
  59. The Inferno by Dante
  60. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
  61. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison*
  62. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman*
  63. The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  64. The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis*
  65. The Little Prince by Antoine  de Saint-Exepury*
  66. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov*
  67. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez*
  68. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  69. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
  70. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  71. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
  72. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
  73. The Odyssey by Homer
  74. Oedipus, King by Sophocles
  75. On the Road by Jack Kerouac*
  76. A Passage to India by E.M. Forster*
  77. The Pentateuch
  78. Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen
  79. Rabbit, Run by John Updike
  80. The Road by Cormac McCarthy*
  81. Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare
  82. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  83. Slaughterhouse-5 by Kurt Vonnegut*
  84. The Sound and The Fury by William Faulkner
  85. The Stand by Stephen King* (I own two, the original and the unabridged. Anyone surprised? No.)
  86. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  87. Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust
  88. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  89. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe*
  90. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
  91. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  92. Ulysses by James Joyce
  93. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
  94. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  95. Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee
  96. Watchmen by Alan Moore
  97. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
  98. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte*
  99. 1984 by George Orwell*
  100. 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James*

I’ve read 67/100. This means, in the American grading system, I would receive a D in being well-read. That seems a little harsh. Some of these I don’t plan to read (i.e. Anna Karenina, I’ve tried – twice) and others are just waiting for me to have the opportunity (i.e. The Book Thief). 

So tell me, are you well-read by this list’s standards? I don’t know if I consider myself well-read, but I do consider myself a well rounded reader. I think there are almost too many books in the world to ever be considered well-read. If only watching Wishbone counted, I’d totally have this list in the bag (for the record, I still remember the Don Quixote episode vividly).

Image (original source unknown)

44 thoughts on “Are You Well-Read?

    1. I have a few that I want to read, some I have no interested in (like Anna K.). A list like this is so hard to make because there are so many options (that were not included) – Charlotte Bronte, Thomas Hardy, John Irving, Iain Banks, James Dickey, Bret Easton Ellis, Tom Wolfe, etc.


  1. Wishbone! I always kinda wished the episodes were JUST the dog acting out the books. The “real life” stuff always bored me. Though to be fair I think I was a little older than the intended audience.


    1. So was I, I still loved it though. I’ve blocked out most of the real life stuff and only remember the books. I’ll use the excuse that it was for the kiddo was babysitting. However, in truth it was just awesome. I loved the Cyrano episode too. And the Rip Van Winkle one…

      This could get embarrassing 😉


      1. I have a five-years-younger brother so I watched a lot of stuff I was too old for. Some of it I secretly liked, some not so much.


      2. I have a brother ten years younger than me, I know exactly what you mean, but I still cringe anytime I think of Rugrats!

        But really, by watching Wishbone, I was doing the world a service, converting one little boy into a lover of stories.


    1. It’s so subjective, but it’s an interesting diagnostic – though I certainly wouldn’t be worried if some of the ones you haven’t read included The Da Vinci Code, 50 Shades…, or Gone Girl 🙂


      1. I understand its inclusion from a pop culture stand point and though it pains me to use the word literature, it has certainly had a influence on popular literature being published. It has ushered in a new age of billionaire-virgin not-quite-erotica erotica (for those who have no interest in actually reading erotica). Though I don’t know if my being able to say ‘I’ve read 50 Shades of Grey’ makes me well-read. To be a bit crass, I have absolutely no problem with people reading shit literature as long as they are aware that it is, in fact, utter rubbish.

        I feel snobbishness is okay as long as it doesn’t stray into vocal judgement category (I secretly judge, but I keep those thoughts to myself – mostly).


      2. I think that’s (unfortunately) very reflective of works that are considered canon.

        I can think of two immediate options to add: Rebecca and Jane Eyre (removing Kerouac and Franzen, though that’s my personal opinion).


      3. Definitely. I’ve actually never read anything by Franzen (so shame on me for judging), but I find the man obnoxious (google him if you’re curious about his more colorful opinions, his Oprah issues (he was mad that she chose his book for her book club) and Edith Wharton issues are my favorite).


  2. I counted up six. I don’t remember what I read in high school, so I don’t count those. However, I am sure a few of them on that list I read. I look at that list and I see ones I want to read, some I might read, and a few I will never read.


    1. I read quite a few of these in high school, most I remember, some I don’t (like The Thing They Carried, so I didn’t count it). I hope to read a few more of these, but like you, there are some I have zero interest in. Life is too short to suffer through Proust (though I suppose I shouldn’t use ‘suffer’).


    1. D, F, not much difference. 🙂

      There are so many books not listed that I think are equally important that it’s not something I’m even worried about. If this list (and the new movie) can’t guilt me into reading Anna Karenina, nothing can!


      1. I have a love-hate relationship with the classic Russian writers, mostly focused on the latter.

        If I see the new movie and love it, I’ll reconsider.


  3. I’ll have to try this! It seems like a trendy list – I had never even heard of Cloud Atlas before the movie came out, and I doubt people will think about 50 Shades in ten or twenty years.


    1. I hope people to think of 50 Shades in ten or twenty years! It is, I think it is defining well-read with a bit of a pop culture element, much like Dickens probably was in his heyday (although more talented than E.L James). I’d heard of Cloud Atlas (I enjoyed Ghostwritten) before the movie, but I haven’t read it yet.

      I always think lists are fun and it is interesting what other people consider to be well read. Personally, I think anyone who missed out on The Da Vinci code is not missing much, but, then again, it’s not my list…


      1. Agreed about Da Vinci Code. Maybe 50 Shades just seems too narrowly-focused? Everybody and their grandmother read Da Vinci Code when it came out, and I would think Dickens had a broad audience, too. I don’t know if many guys are reading 50 Shades, although it certainly has had ripples all across pop culture. Heck, even fan fiction got a boost from it.


  4. I only read 20, but many of the novels on this list appear on my to-be-read list! I don’t consider myself to be well-read yet, but I have read a lot (being an English Lit student helps haha!). I must admit I question the inclusion of several of these books on the list (50 Shades of Grey). Although I have read and enjoyed The Stand and The Hunger Games, I don’t think they belong in this list either. I would add Dracula, Pamela: Virtue Rewarded, The Aeneid, Animal Farm, Ivanhoe, A Room of One’s Own (I know it is an essay and does not fit in the fiction category, but I just really wanted to throw it in there!), to name a few. I love book lists!


    1. I understand the 50 Shades inclusion from influential popular culture standpoint, but not from a well read standpoint.

      A few I would’ve considered for inclusion (some of these more so than others): Jane Eyre, Rebecca, Tess of the d’Ubervilles or Return of the Native, A Room of One’s Own (I agree with you, I think it’s more important than Mrs. Dalloway), We, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, maybe One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Jungle, Naked Lunch, and something by John Irving…

      A few of them I also consider odd choices for the particular author (I’m thinking of Henry James specifically).


  5. I think I’ve 35ish from the list. A big fat fail! According to that list anyway 😉 I consider myself quite well-read, thank you very much!


    1. Given that I’m under 50, I consider myself fairly well-read. Could I read more? Not realistically. So I try to be satisfied with what I can do, but then you see the people who have already read 100+ books this year and I wonder how on earth they do it! They must read much faster than me.

      I’ll feel better once I get The Handmaid’s Tale and The Book Thief out of the way. That’ll make me well read. 😉


    1. Yes, but you read and loved Tell the Wolves I’m Home (I’m prepared to read your glowing review tomorrow), so that makes you okay in my book.

      Looking forward to your list. And yes, I will secretly be judging you on what you haven’t read yet. 😉


    1. I really struggled with the inclusion of 50 Shades and The Da Vinci Code, but it’s not my list and I have actually read them both (my list most certainly would’ve included Jane Eyre and John Irving).

      I read only the very first Anne of the series (I did like it, it’s on my ever growing list of series to finish), so I left it off the list. I was very into Nancy Drew and Sweet Valley High (and The Hardy Boys, to an extent) when I was young.


  6. I went through a Nancy Drew phase and I LOVED Sweet Valley High and Sweet Dreams (kick myself that I got rid of all of my books – I always look out for copies at second-hand bookshops although those 80s ‘first-editions’ are becoming quite sort-after now!). Although they are terrible, I had to read the SVH ‘Confidential’ series about Elizabeth and Jessica ‘now’ – was a very strange reading experience.


  7. If I counted correctly, I’ve read 57. If I have to read books like The Help or 50 Shades in order to be well-read, then I’m perfectly fine with not being well-read. Hahaha!


    1. Ha, I felt like the only person who read The Help and was like “what’s all the fuss?”. I never even ended up seeing the movie. Maybe someday.

      And yes, you do need to read 50 Shades to be well-read. Get on that.

      (though in all seriousness, the comedic value is priceless).


    1. I read my fair share of crap too, I try to balance it out (though it doesn’t mean I necessarily enjoy the literary stuff better). 50 Shades is a modern phenomenon and The Da Vinci code is on there too, so quality obviously isn’t the biggest requirement.


  8. I actually do feel I am well-read, even though I might not have read half of the books above. Interesting post, I’ve seen Jennifer’s as well. I left a lenghty reply there, so I won’t repeat it again, but I think if you read across genres then you are well-read.


    1. I agree, I think of myself as a well-rounded reader. I’ve read a little bit from most genres and have a good sense of what constitutes good literature from each. There are so many books in the world that I think it’s hard to actually be well read.


  9. I’ve probably read about a quarter, so according to that list I’m not nearly well-read.

    I’m not sure I agree with a few on there, The Book Thief for example. But, I think that is a demonstration of how much these things depend on taste and hegemonic values.

    I like to think I’m fairly well read, but it would take more time than I have to be totally well read. It’s a process of ensuring you never getting stuck in a literary genre and never reading outside of it.


  10. I mostly enjoyed the discussion that came out of this list when it was originally posted 🙂 Thought-provoking, for sure.

    I’ve only read 26 on this list, but there were several more I have sitting on my shelf waiting to be read…someday.


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