In response to last week’s question about excellence and mediocrity, Holden (who has a great newsletter of his own) wrote this:
I have been struggling a lot lately with striving for excellence vs. accepting mediocrity. I think I have decided that what is most important is prioritizing what you love, and considering everything else you know an added benefit. For instance, I think that I am a good writer, at least better than some, and I have decided I want to strive for excellence in that regard. I am also a proficient guitar player, but I have finally accepted that I am not going to be great at it. My time is limited, and I should be proud of what I do know.
I think this question is also particularly pertinent to people who are surrounded by, or at least pay attention to, people that are better them. I know that I compare myself often to peers with 15+ years of experience. I constantly feel like I am behind, and beat myself up over it. At some point, I have to acknowledge I am young, and it’s okay to take my time to become excellent.
I was thinking this the other day but in reverse. I’m 26 and there are Important Internet People my age or younger making great things (like Myke Hurley and Federico Viticci). But I have time, and I shouldn’t let myself be intimidated.
• • •
Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders are two of my favorite characters. Danny is the teenage son of an ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jewish rabbi. Reuven’s family observes a more modern, less extreme version of the religion. The two become improbable friends after Danny’s well-aimed baseball shatters Reuven’s glasses and nearly blinds him.
I first discovered Chaim Potok’s The Chosen in junior high, and the closeness of these two boys’ friendship appealed to me. It was comforting to experience their world vicariously even when my real life was a mess of social ineptitude and teenage uncertainty. They taught me about caring, forgiveness, duty, love, and growing up. They showed me the Jewish microcosm in New York City, something I may never experience firsthand.
The sequel, The Promise, is about the boys several years later. Their lives have diverged a bit, and although they are still friends, the tone is more melancholy. It’s about finding one’s place in the adult world where things are more complicated. I read it earlier this year, and in a way I’m glad I had the benefit of my own experience becoming an adult first to illuminate the story.
I came across a nice list called “What Books Do for the Human Soul: The Four Psychological Functions of Great Literature”. It goes like this:
- It saves you time
- It makes you nicer
- It’s a cure for loneliness
- It prepares you for failure
I’ve found this to be true not just with the stories of Danny and Reuven, not just with Potok’s other excellent books, but with most good books I’ve read. They’ve helped me become a better human.
• • •
Is there a book that has had an outsized influence on your life? What is it and how did it change you?