The Concept Of Being ‘Well Read’ Gives Me Anxiety

Photographed by Fernanda Liberti
Like so many people, class didn’t exist for me (insofar as I didn’t really think about it or, perhaps, tried not to) until I was much older. But once I started to consider it properly in my 20s, everything came back to me. 
I remembered that I was 9 when a girl came round to my house after school and next thing I knew, there was a rumour going around school: "Simran must be poor because she has no toys."
I remembered that I was 16 when I went on my first ever family holiday abroad to America. My parents saved up for it and it was probably the biggest thing we’d ever done.
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I remembered that I was 20 when my mum stopped working night shifts after 25 years as a shop assistant and decided to switch to days. 
Class is a complex subject. Everyone feels something about it, regardless of which end of the spectrum they are on. I remember seeing my friends' houses, watching their mums unpack Ocado deliveries, going into their bedrooms and scanning their overflowing bookshelves. I went home to the shared bedroom I once slept in with my sister, grandmother and little brother at the same time, our occasional Sainsbury’s shops and, crucially, a severe lack of what some might call the 'right' reading material. 
Now I think about it, I was always acutely aware of what we lacked. But it was particularly obvious when it came to being 'well read'. 
Being 'well read' is aspirational. It’s an accolade. It’s used as a synonym for intelligent. And, in my experience, references to the classics are thrown around by people who often don’t realise that they are acting as gatekeepers of debates about class and politics. 
Today, my rented home is full of feminist literature. There are three copies of Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other – one for each of my housemates. It is a book that, apparently, everyone must own as they ascend into womanhood. It is a cultural requirement, alongside going on regular trips to theatres, galleries and museums. 
The people I live with are politically plugged in. They’re what you would call 'well read'. They are cultured. They have read the things you are supposed to have read. They can reference them. That’s great. It’s important. But it is a privilege. One that I now realise you don’t necessarily have if you didn’t grow up with some sort of library at home, have parents who are also culturally or politically engaged, or go to a school that makes you read the classics. 
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It’s not that my family isn't engaged. My grandad was a communist who fled India and became a vital part of the Indian Workers’ Association. My dad has never been quiet about where he stands – he woke us all up at 5am on the morning we found out that we were leaving the EU, screaming that everyone who voted leave was "a twat". But that’s not the same as reading the right books or immersing yourself in the social media discourse that those books give you access to. 

The literary canon is a contentious idea because, for too long, it mostly included the work of white, English-speaking men. 

I became properly engaged in politics at university when I was studying French and Chinese. Prior to this, my only real experience of politics was voting in the 2015 general election and, of course, the tragic EU referendum.
University is often described as a great example of social mobility. It doesn’t matter what your background is, what your parents do or how much money they have – you can become a graduate and change your class. Allegedly. But, for me, university was what actually exposed me to classism.
According to the Social Mobility Commission of the British government, 39% of the public think it is difficult for people from less advantaged families to move up in British society and 42% of those aged 25 to 49 think it is getting harder. This statistic slapped me in the face as I tried to move upwards through an education system still very much rooted in elitism. Even though I had made the cut, gotten into university and was alongside people who had paid thousands for their education, it still really wasn’t enough. The journey towards a life that my parents wanted for me – one without the struggles that they have faced and still battle with now – was more difficult than I had ever imagined. 
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At university I realised that while my family was politically active, other people talked about politics in theory because they had done the reading. They seemed to think that this was the requirement for being politically engaged. From reading Marx and Engels to listening to Noam Chomsky’s lectures, it’s difficult to feel seen in a room where being 'well read' is the only way to account for your opinion. 
I read Edward Said for the first time at university yet in the same classroom where I learned about the notion of the ‘other’, I felt I was the ‘other’.
On my language course, I remember having classmates who had spent every summer in France since they were 2 years old. I remember another undergraduate who decided that taking modules on British imperialism would be easy because their dad had academic mates who would happily help them write their essays. Suddenly the barriers to moving up in the world were more apparent than ever. 
We’d talk about race theoretically in modules about colonialism and protest music yet the girls who slept with Simone de Beauvoir books under their pillows seemed to be the only ones respected by the group. Apparently my opinions only scratched the surface of understanding complex issues that were my day-to-day life. My lived experience as a woman of colour from a low-income background was just another point for debate, which apparently could be argued against as well. From insisting that fetishising women of colour can be just a 'preference' to arguing that colonialism was good for India, the conversations I had were humiliating and enraging.
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In fact, most of these important conversations went a similar way. And now that I've graduated, I worry that they still do. Everywhere I see people talking 'on behalf of' the working class or people of colour. I don’t always agree with them but sometimes I feel I’m expected to mute my experiences because others have read more literature than me, because I might talk about my life and not something I’ve read in a book. 
I have a huge issue with the idea of being 'well read' as a way of deciding who is and isn’t allowed to speak, whose experiences are and are not valid. The assumption about what people have and haven’t read excludes them from the conversations that they need to be involved in. My dad might not be able to quote Karl Marx but he can tell you about the National Front and what it was like being a first generation, working class immigrant in the '60s and '70s because he lived it. Do I need to have read Empireland and Inglorious Empire to have a view on the impact of colonialism on British Indians?
Looking at the national curriculum now, the variety is still appalling. GCSE students are taught Macbeth, An Inspector Calls, Great Expectations and Jane Eyre but steered away from imperialism. This enables Britain’s historical amnesia. Ultimately, it’s the job of education systems to make sure that knowledge is accessible and available to everyone, whether that’s encouraging diversity in what is taught or diversity in the classroom. Both are equally important. 
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Private schools have more choice in terms of their curriculum so it’s not surprising that Eton students read the Odyssey at 11 while I thought it was a spaceship from Star Wars until I was 18. When I went to university I couldn’t believe how young everyone had started out in their quest to become 'well read' and it made me reflect on the very idea of the classics. What is defined as classic by some – Charles Dickens, Emily Brontë – might not be a classic for others. The literary canon is a contentious idea because, for too long, it mostly included the work of white, English-speaking men. 
Consider our current government for a moment. The majority of those in the top jobs are men and most of those men are white. Since Boris Johnson – an Etonian who went to Oxford and quotes Shakespeare like it’s going out of fashion – has been prime minister, he has consistently constructed cabinets in which the majority of politicians are privately educated
According to the Sutton Trust’s "Elitist Britain 2019" report, Britain’s most powerful people are five times more likely than the general public to have gone to private school and in parliament, it’s four times more likely. 
This matters. It is related to who we consider to have authority, to who we consider to be worth listening to. The message it sends to people like me from low-income, non-white backgrounds is that the stage does not belong to us because we don’t speak the right language, we don’t know the right references. 
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But let’s be real: not everyone has the time to consume the classics at home. For many second generation children of immigrants like me, or those from lower income backgrounds, there is no time to be sitting at home reading. Luckily for me, although I worked part-time jobs as a tutor and babysat occasionally, my priority was school and getting into university, becoming a successful young woman as my parents wanted me to be. For others, it involves having to work a lot harder to support their family but also helping parents at doctors' appointments, or filling in forms where English isn’t their first language. That leaves little room for much else. 

The voices of those around me matter more than any book because their stories always teach me more than any book ever could.

In primary school, teachers used to sing my praises. I was in the 'gifted and talented' groups. I was given extra reading classes and my parents swear that I was having full conversations before the age of 2. I know. Every parent thinks their child is a prodigy. Regardless, when I went to high school I was sure that it would be a breeze, a time for me to become the iconic Indian child who goes to university, becomes a doctor and makes her parents proud. It didn’t quite work out like that. Here I am now, with a degree in the arts, living with five of my friends in a warm but slightly damp home in south London and hoping for a career in media, which is quite the departure from the immigrant parents' dream of medicine (or dentistry). 
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Am I any less because I didn’t grow up in a 'well read' household? No. It wasn’t until I encountered 'well read' people at university who were armed with an arsenal of books, films, theatre productions, art installations and podcast episodes that I felt my views and opinions were less than valid. Yet I still got my GCSEs, my A-levels and was accepted into the same university as them. So this can’t be the only way we measure intelligence. 
I think there’s still a lot of work to be done. Unlike Jane Austen’s protagonists who spent hours at home reading because they had nothing else to do and, crucially, could afford to, I grew up spending my days seeing the world and experiencing it.
Perhaps we need to broaden our definition of what it means to be 'well read' and which references we value in conversations and debates. Every day I wake up and I know that I have to work that little bit harder to feel seen and to be heard, but that doesn’t make me want to stop. Ultimately, the voices of those around me matter more than any book because their stories always teach me more than any book ever could.

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