For the most part, ignorance is bliss. We are perfectly capable of going about our day to day jobs in a competent manner. Every once in a while, we trip in a hole in our knowledge. Sometimes it's just a mis-step, other times it's a sprained ankle.
Of course, as we begin our careers, there are many holes and they are filled in gradually. When I first started practicing veterinary medicine, I didn't know how to surgically repair umbilical hernias. I encountered them occasionally in a show goat kid or foal. I was never taught this surgical method--not sure why--and it was a hole I had to fill.
Moving to writing, it's been said many times that the best way to learn to write is to read. Read anything, read everything. Of course, try to fit in some of the greats: Hemingway, Dickens, Chekhov, Shakespeare, Faulkner, etc. etc. Many of us receive doses of these greats in high school or college. Many more of us take them on independently as adults.
I often come along reading lists (100 BOOKS YOU MUST READ BEFORE YOU DIE, 13 GREAT BOOKS OF 2013, TOP 25 SCI-FI BOOKS EVER WRITTEN). These serve as a wake up call: I have literary holes big enough to drive a truck through.
These literary holes are more embarrassing than my ineptitude at surgically correcting an umbilical hernia. Can you believe I've never read anything by James Joyce? Virginia Woolf? Anton Chekhov? Jack Kerouac? That's just the tip of the iceberg. I didn't even know who Susan Sontag was until a few months ago. I mean, really? Pathetic.
Sometimes I get a little overwhelmed at this ineptitude and dismay that the thought that there's no way I'll ever get caught up in this reading. But I have to keep one thing in mind: we shouldn't read as though we're just checking items off a list. We should read to learn and to enjoy and it shouldn't become a burden, something we have to slog through.
I am also reminded of one of my favorite adages: how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. So, in between my devouring of current popular fiction, magazines, candy wrappers, Sunday newspapers (mostly the comics section), and other miscellany that makes it into my grubby hands, I'll be more conscientious about picking up a "great" once in a while. Because, as a writer, I have a lot to learn.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a copy of The Grapes of Wrath waiting for me.