How Can a Gentleman Become—or at Least Appear—Well-Read?

Sensible answers to the questions of modern manhood.
July 30 2014 4:01 PM

How Can a Gentleman Appear Well-Read?

Advice for would-be bibliophiles.

Troy Patterson.
Troy Patterson.

Photo by Christina Paige

Please send your questions for publication to gentlemanscholarslate@gmail.com. (Questions may be edited.)

What is the easiest way for me to become, or at least to appear to be, well-read?

Troy Patterson.
Troy Patterson.

Photo by Christina Paige

Thanks for your question.

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The easiest way to appear to be well-read is to socialize exclusively with uncultured cretins, which simply won’t do, so instead you should subscribe to the New York Review of Books and read it religiously, committing to memory one idea from each piece and praying to achieve a casual air when, at a dinner party, fobbing off this insight as your own. I also recommend convening a book club to discuss Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, on the basis of not having opened it.

The easiest way to become well read is to earn a bachelor’s degree in English literature, blowing off no more than 20 percent of your assigned reading to promiscuously ingest detective novels, Dadaist poetry, and whatever else will encourage a bookworm infection. Then spend five or 10 years covering the publishing industry, critically and otherwise, keeping abreast of the year-end best lists and flavors of the month. You will be drowning in books, which will only stimulate your bibliomania further, and it will become impossible to pass through any swap meet or remainder sale without seizing on a volume that shows some hint of promise. You will linger at every giveaway pile of paperbacks you encounter on the street, and you will develop the auxiliary habit of assembling psychological profiles of the people who have abandoned these books, wondering what it means to find Machiavelli’s Discourses in intimate proximity to Hold em Poker for Advanced Players. You will come to understand the expansions and contractions of your book collection as matters of ingestion and elimination: The proper home library is a kind of living animal—both a domestic pet in need of tending and an edible beast kept to feed the head.

That’s how I did it, anyway. When the Gentleman Scholar was a young man, he was the best-read young man in New York. Then he gained some years and lost a step. You know how it goes: One becomes overwhelmed by daily banalities and, turning to his shelf, finds an unfashionable absence between Klosterman, Chuck and Koestenbaum, Wayne. Still, this column is well positioned to share a few guidelines about the care and feeding of a home library.

• As hinted, the first rule of library organization is that the books should be alphabetized by author, such that the well-read person’s shelf might go like so—Susan Sontag’s nonfiction, Vladimir Sorokin’s thrillers, Terry Southern’s complete works, some Muriel Spark and Art Spiegelman and Mickey Spillane, a lot of Gertrude Stein, John Steinbeck’s nonfiction, a couple Stendhals, and Laurence Sterne’s Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman … It’s simple and elegant and yields nifty juxtapositions, and the only question is whether Mary McCarthy and Carson McCullers and their ilk should go before Thomas Macaulay or after William Maxwell.

Exceptions to this rule are few and fairly obvious: You are permitted to break from the abecedarian plan to shelve anthologies, reference texts, how-to books, and miscellany. It’s best to shelve literary biographies alongside the works of their subjects. You are encouraged to put the cookbooks in the kitchen, the cocktail books at the bar, the dirty books within reach of the sex swing, and the fiction of Sontag and Steinbeck out on the curb.

If you encounter the shelves of a person who arranges his books by color, the most correct observation is, “Oh, that’s cute.”

• If you maintain a policy of loaning out your books eagerly and with no expectation of their return, then there is no shame in borrowing books with the intent to steal.

• When dusting your books—or, better, teaching a 6-year-old how to make himself useful for once by dusting your books—dust away from the spine to “keep particles of dust and grime from falling down inside the binding.” When the 6-year-old has finished with McCarthy, McCullers, McEwan, McGahern, McGowan, and started in on McInerney, you should ask her, “Did you know that 90 percent of your average household dust is composed of human epidermal matter?

Re: “What Should a Gentleman Tip a Racist Cabdriver?” When I saw the headline, I thought the story would be about a cab driver who revealed his racism in conversation during the ride. What should you do when the cabbie starts talking about "those people"—any of the ethnic, religious, or socioeconomic groups not represented in the cab? I'm 40, and as I’ve gotten older, I've found it easier to respectfully disagree. A little bit of condescension (“I'm sorry that you haven't had some of the positive experiences I've had …”) goes a long way, if necessary. But really, most people in that situation will appreciate some good-humored candor, might be willing to learn, and at worst will shut the hell up.

Thanks for reading and for writing.

I have encountered this scenario only once. I was in Cleveland. I did not want to be in Cleveland any longer and went to the airport, driven by a fellow who seemed, for much of the trip, simply to be gaseously annoying. On and on he went about the celebrities he’d shepherded to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, about his warm personal relationship with LeBron James, that kind of thing. It was all merely tedious until, pulling up to the terminal, he spotted some of his professional peers waiting for fares and said, “Fucking Somalians. Ruinin’ the fuckin’ business.” The slur was stunning in its suddenness, and I didn’t so much exit the cab as flee the scene: My calculation of the tip was guided by a desire not to have to wait around for change.

Though I admire the spirit of kindness informing your approach, I respectfully disagree with the notion that a bigoted utterance warrants a respectful disagreement. Another correct response to hostile wheezing is, “That’s offensive. Please be quiet.”

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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