I'm curious about the concept of well-readness and what it covers. Amanda of Dead White Guys & Book Riot had a post exploring this concept a while back. The takeaway seemed to be that you should read widely and thoughtfully to qualify as well-read. The conversation was recently rekindled by Jeff O'Neal's list of 100 books that will take you "from zero to well-read" and the debates over his post neatly illustrated how difficult it is to define and apply labels like "well-read." So far, so good. I admit that I'm not very invested in this debate as concerns literature, but I was wondering whether it should include only literature.
|Quint Buchholz, Book Scales|
I sort of get why the sciences are not mentioned here. It's not only about the two cultures divide, about the way in which the humanistic and scientific worlds are constantly portrayed as apart and incompatible, and the ideal of the cultivated or well-educated mind is more often associated with the humanistic side (think of how not knowing who Shakespeare is carries a greater intellectual stigma than not knowing the Second Law of Thermodynamics). When it comes to sciences, there's also the fact that it is not very productive to read the original works as opposed to studying their main ideas from a textbook (I mean, good luck with reading Newton's Principia if that's what you want to do with your life, but still...). So the sciences are not easily-included in the well-read conversation.
But if the goal of being well-read is to be able "to think and converse about the human experience intelligently," shouldn't philosophy qualify? Not as an afterthought ("of course, non-fiction is important too"), but as an essential part of the canon. After all, much of the world (and literature) we know now would simply not exist without philosophy. Whether you want to have an idea of the history of human thought, or to understand a piece of literature in context (sometimes to understand a piece of literature at all), you need to have some knowledge of philosophy. And this is not to talk about the tools and frameworks literary theory borrows from philosophy.
This raises the question of how far we should go, though. How much and what philosophy should you read to qualify as well-read? Most people would probably agree that Plato's Dialogues are indispensable (or, more accurately, a selection of them is). So is Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, but it's long and dense, so should you read it if you don't have a special interest in philosophy? Most people would probably agree that you should have some knowledge of Sartre and Existentialism if you want to understand the 20th century in literature. Fair enough, but what about other strands of philosophy? Should you be familiar with Carnap or Quine?
So what do you think? Would you include philosophy in the endless stream of stuff you have to cover to be "well-read"? Do any particular works or criteria for selecting them come to mind?