Seneca on our overindulgent habits of reading

It may be time to rest after a day of writing like mad about Jane Austen. For me, Austen is hard. She flees from me, is overdemanding, is so smart that I can’t keep up. Every time I try to do her justice, I fail. I take some time away from her. In about a year, I try again. I fail again. It’s comical, I know, but I still feel also as if I’ve learned something. This doesn’t mean that Austen isn’t still a pain in the ass. She is.

Rest then. A day of reading ahead. Below, Seneca on the art of reading. Enjoy.

2. Discursiveness in Reading

Judging by what you write me, and by what I hear, I am forming a good opinion regarding your future. You do not run hither and thither and distract yourself by changing your abode; for such restlessness is the sign of a disordered spirit. The primary indication, to my thinking, of a well-ordered mind is a man’s ability to remain in one place and linger in his own company. [Re-read that again: “to linger in his own company.” That’s nice.] Be careful, however, lest this reading of many authors and books of every sort may tend to make you discursive [The translation, here, is clumsy. The word in Latin is vagum, which means: wandering, rambling; also, vague] and unsteady. You must linger among a limited number of master-thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind. Everywhere means nowhere. When a person spends all his time in foreign travel, he ends by having many acquaintances, but no friends. And the same thing must hold true of men who seek intimate acquaintance with no single author, but visit them all in a hasty and hurried manner. Food does no good and is not assimilated into the body if it leaves the stomach as soon as it is eaten; nothing hinders a cure so much as frequent change of medicine; no wound will heal when one salve is tried after another; a plant which is often moved can never grow strong. [Get the idea? Seneca loves making analogical arguments. Another: A corpse too often re-interred will never get settled. ?!@*?] There is nothing so efficacious that it can be helpful while it is being shifted about. And in reading of many books is distraction.

Accordingly, since you cannot read all the books which you may possess, it is enough to possess only as many books as you can read. “But,” you reply, “I wish to dip first into one book and then into another.” I tell you that it is the sign of an overnice appetite to toy with many dishes; for when they are manifold and varied, they cloy but do not nourish. So you should always read standard authors; and when you crave a change, fall back upon those whom you read before. Each day acquire something that will fortify you against poverty, against death, indeed against other misfortunes as well; and after you have run over many thoughts, select one to be thoroughly digested each day. This is my own custom; from the many things, which I have read, I claim some one part for myself. [That’s beautiful the last: “I claim some one part for myself.”]

The thought for to-day is one which I discovered in Epicurus; for I am wont to cross over even into the enemy’s camp–not as a deserter, but as a scout. [Epicurus was the founder of, um duh, Epicureanism, a philosophical school that argued that the aim of life was moderate pleasure. For his part, Seneca was a follower of Stoicism, which insisted that a good life just was a virtuous life. During the Hellenic period in which Seneca is writing, Epicureanism and Stoicism were competing schools of philosophy–which is to say, competing ways of life. This is why Seneca speaks of not “cross[ing] over into the enemy’s camp.” And yet, when it suited his purpose, Seneca could be quite eclectic in his borrowings: he was more than happy to dip a toe into other philosophical pools and see whether he could “smuggle” any of their thoughts into the Stoic’s camp. He was wont to call the good thoughts “common property” anyway.] He [now back to Epicurus] says: “Contented poverty is an honourable estate.” Indeed, if it be contented, it is not poverty at all. It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor. What does it matter how much a man has laid up in his safe, or in his warehouse, how large are his flocks and how fat his dividends, if he covets his neighbour’s property, and reckons, not his past gains, but hopes of gains to come? Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? It is, first, to have what is necessary, and, second, to have what is enough. Farewell. (Epistles 1-65, Harvard Loeb Classics, pp. 7-9)

I love how Seneca ends his letters to Lucilius with that one word vale. I’ve had my say, I’ve given my counsel and–zip–farewell! It’s uncommonly graceful this style. Compare his vale with our too-long hangings-on, our cut-short en passants, our unfeeling pissoffs, our too feeling blubberings. Nope. Had my say. Think on this. Vale!

2 thoughts on “Seneca on our overindulgent habits of reading

  1. The good thing about tall stacks is that they get smaller when you give them away. Otherwise, they turn into Jenga.

    The next step for the friend of yours who carries books upon his/her person is to carry them in his/her heart. Lighter that way and more room besides.

    As to your P.S.: Yes, Seneca draws on food, plant, and culinary analogies throughout his letters. In short, a *whole biology* of reading. This tactile vocabulary gets *carried forward* into the lectio divina tradition where gustatory terms for reading were almost literal. Books were to be tasted. Even as late as the Renaissance, Montaigne could be heard talking still about digesting another man’s ideas. Now books are consumed.

    1. We book lovers seem to think that we have to build our own private collections. But we’re confusing the thought, “This book matters to me,” with the conclusion, “I have to hold onto this; it’s a private possession.” And if we didn’t? Some different thoughts:

      1. “This was *so good*. Come over here and try this. Here, no, take it.”
      2. “Huh. If I want to pick up this book, then I had better put this one over here in someone else’s hands. After all, there’s only *so much room*.”
      3. “I love this so much that I thought it must be *yours*.”
      4. “I can’t, after all, take these books with me when I die. Then why should I take them with me while I live? I can only take them with me in spirit.”

      We don’t want private collections; we want lending libraries and, more than this, communities.

      * * *

      Montaigne is a better companion than Seneca to have around: less uptight and much more fun. Go with him. He also likes food.

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