Yet another excerpt from the interview with Ted Kooser (see the post below as well) in Guernica magazine. This one is about yield:
If you can find two poems in a book, it could be a pretty good book for you. You know, two poems you really like. There are some poets who are fairly big names in contemporary poetry and who write a book and I might like three or four poems in the book, but the rest of them don’t appeal to me personally; but I think that’s the way it really ought to be. I think it’s really a rare thing to like everything that somebody has written. And often—you’ve probably had this experience—you see a poem in a magazine that you really like and you order the book, and it happens that that’s the only poem in the book you like. But that’s probably the way it ought to be. It would be the same way in buying paintings. You find a painting that you really like and you don’t necessarily like the rest of the person’s work at all.
Kooser’s admonitions are a good mantra for managing expectations in general: Two poems in a volume of poetry it is a good book. Just two paintings in a show is a connection. Two tracks you respond to on a music release is a score.
This acceptance of lower yields has a lot in common with a memorable piece written by Linda Holmes called The Sad, Beautiful Fact the We’re all Going to Miss Almost Everything. Like Holmes, I want to read/see/hear/experience everything. Which is a totally irrational wish. We have limits, people. Serious limits.
With so many options and way too many channels available to all of us, we need a strategy for managing. Here’s hers:
Now, everything gets dropped into our laps, and there are really only two responses if you want to feel like you’re well-read, or well-versed in music, or whatever the case may be: culling and surrender.
Culling is the choosing you do for yourself. It’s the sorting of what’s worth your time and what’s not worth your time…
Surrender, on the other hand, is the realization that you do not have time for everything that would be worth the time you invested in it if you had the time, and that this fact doesn’t have to threaten your sense that you are well-read. Surrender is the moment when you say, “I bet every single one of those 1,000 books I’m supposed to read before I die is very, very good, but I cannot read them all, and they will have to go on the list of things I didn’t get to.”
It is the recognition that well-read is not a destination; there is nowhere to get to, and if you assume there is somewhere to get to, you’d have to live a thousand years to even think about getting there, and by the time you got there, there would be a thousand years to catch up on.
Holmes’ final word is another mantra for managing:
It’s sad, but it’s also … great, really. Imagine if you’d seen everything good, or if you knew about everything good. Imagine if you really got to all the recordings and books and movies you’re “supposed to see.” Imagine you got through everybody’s list, until everything you hadn’t read didn’t really need reading. That would imply that all the cultural value the world has managed to produce since a glob of primordial ooze first picked up a violin is so tiny and insignificant that a single human being can gobble all of it in one lifetime. That would make us failures, I think.
If “well-read” means “not missing anything,” then nobody has a chance. If “well-read” means “making a genuine effort to explore thoughtfully,” then yes, we can all be well-read. But what we’ve seen is always going to be a very small cup dipped out of a very big ocean, and turning your back on the ocean to stare into the cup can’t change that.