Seneca’s Tough Love for Book Lovers
If you are like me, and take great joy in curating your personal library, then this excerpt from Seneca’s Epistle 2 may be a little disappointing. The translation is from Gummere’s volume in the Loeb Classical Library:
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. Be careful, however, lest this reading of of many authors and books of every sort may tend to make you discursive 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…And in reading of many books is a distraction.
Accordingly, since you cannot read all the books which you possess, it is enough to posses only as many books as you can read…So you should always read standard authors; and when you crave a change, fall back upon those whom you read before.
This reminds me of a critique I heard some time ago of the way we assign reading in University courses. The argument was made that by requiring lengthy reading lists in our classes, we condemn our students to remembering very little of what they hurriedly skim through. Instead, it was suggested, we should assign fewer books of great importance and have our students read them deeply and repeatedly over the course of the semester. Sounds like Seneca would agree. As would I suspect Dr. Bancroft, who taught me Great Books and a great deal more, not least the importance of reading a book slowly and more than once.
Which two or three books do you go back to over and over? Which authors do you tend to read more than others? How might digital media forms relate to Seneca’s warning against disorderly reading? Do feed readers epitomize “discursive and unsteady” reading?
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