Insiders’ Guide: How to Become Well-Read

An Interview With Sara Nelson

Nelson is the editor in chief of Publishers Weekly and author of So Many Books, So Little Time (Berkley).

Great literature can be intimidating, but you don’t have to labor through Ulysses to be well-read. The key is to find books you love and familiarize yourself with a few classics. That way, the next time you’re at a dinner party and someone jokes about throwing herself in front of a train, you’ll catch the reference (Anna Karenina).

•  __ Brose a little.__ To find new books, look for topics that captivate you—it makes the experience of reading that much more enjoyable. Besides Publishers’ Weekly, I regularly skim reviews in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle. And if you shop at a local, independent bookseller, the staff can offer informed suggestions and set aside new releases for you. Or subscribe to a service like Book Span: You pick the genre (such as autobiography or mystery), and they send you the latest title in that category every month.

•  __ Stack up.__ Certain novels touch on universal themes and are reference points for all writers (and readers). These include Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Macbeth, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, any of Jane Austen’s works, and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. This mix covers human emotions like greed, passion, revenge, and sacrifice.

•  __ Plot ahead.__ Even great novels can be difficult to get into at first. So make sure you have a decent translation of any foreign text—it can be the difference between clunky versus eloquent prose (check on to find a good translation). Then try listening to the first few chapters on CD to draw you into the story. But then switch back to the book—hearing a story is never as memorable as absorbing the language.

•  __ Talk about it.__ Book clubs can be great motivators—just make sure the group includes devoted readers. If it turns into a social event, that can be fun, but it won’t make you well-read.

•  __ Close the chapter.__ Turning pages shouldn’t feel like homework. If a novel is not holding my interest after 50 pages or so, I put it aside. Life is too short, and there are too many great books out there to settle for ones you don’t absolutely love.

See Also

  • Insiders’ Guide: How to Choose a Good Book

  • How to Rent Better Movies

  • How to Discover New Music