On a recent trip I took along two books. One was Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, the second a nameless contemporary mystery by another British writer. Airplane reading. I had read Great Expectations a few times. It is one of my very favorite novels, and is, in my opinion, one of the greatest novels ever written. As I read it this time I marveled again and again at its brilliance. Many a time, while reading, I said to myself, “How can you call yourself a writer when you read such wonderful stuff?”
In any case I finished the book, deeply impressed, and in considerable awe.
My flight home was very much delayed so I was glad I had that second book. I did read it and found it was very poor stuff indeed. Again and again I said to myself, “I can do better than this!” Or, “I write better than this!”
It may seem odd to say, but sometimes, when reading great writing, such as Dickens at his best, it’s impossible to learn anything. It is simply too good. But read something very much down the scale and you can learn a lot, because one can learn more from the anatomy of mediocrity than from the flawless body of genius.