The very first essay in my book of Seneca’s letters-which-are-really-essays is advice about reading. What fun!
Let’s see if we agree with what he says:
Be careful, however, that there is no element of discursiveness and desultoriness about this reading you refer to, this reading of many different authors and books of every description. You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind. To be everywhere is to be nowhere.
A multitude of books only gets in one’s way. So if you are unable to read all the books in your possession, you have enough when you have all the books you are able to read. And if you say, “But I feel like opening different books at different times,” my answer will be this: tasting one dish after another is the sign of a fussy stomach, and where the foods are dissimilar and diverse in range they lead to contamination of the system, not nutrition. So always read well-tried authors, and if at any moment you find yourself wanting a change from a particular author, go back to ones you have read before.
Hmmm. I’m guessing Seneca would not approve of my reading. I do like the food metaphors in this passage, as I like to think of reading as a kind of eating, but I don’t see the problem with variety in one’s meals.
I can’t really agree with him, at least not fully. I see nothing wrong — and, in fact, I see a lot of good — in reading new things and a variety of things. And I don’t like the idea of reading nothing but “well-tried” authors either. I want to read well-tried authors, but I want to read little-known ones as well. What Seneca is calling for is reading within a very traditional canon, and I’ve spent way too long hearing about the virtues of opening up the canon to new authors to buy Seneca’s argument. I’d question his idea of “unquestionable genius” — okay, Shakespeare is an unquestionable genius and so are some other authors, but with some exceptions in mind, is it always so clear who is a genius and who is not? Who gets to decide?
I do like the idea of taking your time with authors, to fully digest their writings. There’s something very satisfying — and surely very healthy — in knowing some writers well because you have absorbed their words into your being.
Do you agree with Seneca?