It's also a lesson glaringly obvious on every page of the latest book by Ursula K. Le Guin, "Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), which was published in September. Did you know that she was a poet in addition to so many other things - essayist, book reviewer, acclaimed author of science fiction and fantasy?
This is a substantial collection that spans 50 years and reminds us how writers are different from the rest: Most people are intellectually curious, sure, but not everyone can take that curiosity and transform it into an assured art form, which is what Le Guin does in every poem contained in this book:
I feel so foolish sitting translating Vergil,
the voices of ancient imaginary shepherds,
in a silent house in Georgia, listening
for that human sweetness
That comes from "Learning Latin in Old Age," a poem written not very long ago - perhaps even around the time she wrote her novel "Lavinia," her retelling of the "Aeneid" from the perspective of the woman at the center of the duel between Aeneas and Turnus.
I love the image of Le Guin, seated at a table with a basic Latin reader in front of her. (In my previous life at the L.A. Times, I had several opportunities to work with her on book reviews, and when I approached her to ask if she would consider writing one, what was her reaction? Almost always it was: Sure! Send it to me!)
This lovely volume is a reminder of the reason why we should commit to learning anything: for the love of it, for the greater understanding it gives us of our place in the world. (There are far too many people who simply want to impress us with how smart they are.)
And, one more thing: All knowledge helps us wrestle with our fate, our mortality. Le Guin's collection is undeniably about that as well, which shouldn't be a surprise (she is in her 80s). In the title poem, she writes poignantly about the costs of knowledge, about a painful kind of knowledge that comes only with the passing of many years as loved ones die and you remain:
I can't find you where I've been looking for you,
my elegy. There's all too many graveyards handy
these days, too many names to read through tears
on long black walls...
Beautiful. Painful. Beautiful.