I never would have wasted my time on the books that I did had I known how little time I would have to read in the future.
Being well read is largely a class distinction. If you can afford a career in well-readedness, you must be high in social status. It doesn't much matter what knowledge you gleaned from the books or how you interpreted them if you're taking the same career path as everyone else who has time to read, applying for the same professorships, saying the same things about the market and about the way the world is at parties.
If I knew how little sustenance I would get from 95 percent of classic fiction, I never would have wasted my time.
I sure as hell wouldn't have read a single sentence of William Styron.
I wouldn't have bothered with Hemingway.
Don't get me started on John Gardner.
I would have only bothered with maybe half of Nabokov's work.
I should have skipped Philip Roth and instead read a book or two more of Bellow.
I would probably have skipped Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. Contrary to popular belief, I think his previous books are probably better.
I wouldn't have reread The Recognitions by William Gaddis. It doesn't get better, only less magical. I would have read Alexander Theroux sooner instead.
I wouldn't have read anything too Catholic or too preachy in its progressive, or likewise, in its conservative view of the world. I wouldn't have read books that served solely as commentary about class struggle.
If I knew that I'd have to sift through dozens of pages of Infinite Jest just to get to jokes which were little better than good internet memes, I would have forgone that one.
Then there are the mere casualties of ignorance - authors who basically write the same book over and over, which should mean you could essentially just read one, if it's even worth it in the first place.
Even aside from being a class distinction, the assumed benefits of being well read trickle down to people who can't afford careers in reading. They might sacrifice sleep in order to play catch-up with their reading, trying to get to a place in the canon where they can match wits with academics who aren't even reading for the same reasons they are, as their social capital rests in a bed of much higher complexity with very different incentives.
One thing that is not often mentioned is just how the desire of lower middle classes and lower classes to appear well read is used by groups with different ideological inclinations to manipulate them. One is made to believe one isn't cultured or that one is of low social status if one has not read a set of 'classics' which favor a very specific social, political or aesthetic value.
This is how people who don't have a bigger context or who lack an education get pulled down very narrow intellectual paths which then often act much like cults.
This is both amplified but also somewhat remedied by the internet.
Similar to when the printing press was new and more widely used, the internet resulted in the relativity of the value of information. But just as there is more confusion, there is greater opportunity to contextualize data, rather than treating texts as final authorities.
To bring it back to books, it is now possible to read the books you'd like to read and get a pretty good understanding of their cultural context without having to exhaust the canon.
There's no longer a need to impress people or gain social capital from the books you've read, as the entire cultural infrastructure that supplied this social capital is no longer universal. It has all fragmented.
If anything, it is now possible to start creating new cultures by forging your own path through the canon, reading new meanings into the trajectory that different books have together and developing ideas which would otherwise have been wholly stifled by previous dominant social mechanisms.
In short, read freely, widely and with purpose, but never merely to impress. Wanting to impress people is fine too. One should just be aware of and intentional about who one is trying to impress and how much time and energy it's going to cost.