Advice on Reading

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?


Filed under Books, Essays, Reading

17 responses to “Advice on Reading

  1. You know what I’m going to say, right? I’m with Seneca. I want everything I read to expand me, and sticking to the “well-tried” is sure way to achieve that. Since I am not a genius, reading the geniuses will always give me room to grow.


  2. I knew it! I thought as I was writing this that you would agree with Seneca. Thanks for confirming my suspicions 🙂


  3. I’m afraid Seneca and I disagree. He’d probably faint if he weren’t dead and could see my books in progress list!


  4. Marg

    I’m afraid he won’t like me either! I skip from author to author, genre to genre, have more than one book on the go all the time, own far more books that I can really read! Oh dear…


  5. hepzibah

    Yes – I don’t really agree with his view on reading either…I believe in reading a wide variety of literature, especially those of lesser known works, and I agree with you — who does get to decide what is canonized and what is not? What makes one author more worthy than another?


  6. Just call me Ms. Predictable Canonlover! 😉 But seriously, I just think life is too short not to read (and digest) all the masterpieces. If I have tons of time left over after that, I’ll look at the book prize lists, but I don’t think it will come to that.


  7. Edd

    No, I do not agree with Seneca even though I virtually read only one genre at this stage in life and my unread bookshelf remains overflowing. I very much enjoy chaos, as it has normally been my constant and faithful companion for 61 years.


  8. I think a synthesis is possible between having your reading dictated to you out of a canon and expanding your horizons. I call it “going to college.”

    This is especially true, of course, of a college like my beloved alma mater with a rigorous program in the Great Books. Such a program naturally attracts intellectually interested and interesting people, who will have made their own discoveries and be glad to share them. From the faculty at my school I was taught to love Homer, Plato, Virgil, Chaucer, Dante, and all the rest of the classic gang. From the students I learned of such diverse and worthy authros as Italo Calvino, John Sallis, and Mark Z. Danielewski.

    I suppose I never would have respected the idea of a canon if the classic authors had not been pressed upon me, because the well-tried seemed well-trod to me, but now that I myself have tried them, I’ll never stop rereading them.

    In answer to the question of who decides on the content of canons, it is obvious that the canon is built up by communities of intellectual friendship that are sufficiently grounded in the existing canon to “expand” it responsibly and adventurously.

    So I agree with Seneca, with the qualification that the “well-tried” works you ought to stick with are the ones that recommended themselves to you as reliable (perhaps “unquestionably” reliable) centers for your thinking.


  9. Have to disagree with Seneca.

    Life is too short just to read the canon. It is important to read the nourishing well-tried authors, yes — but I feel someone who read ONLY the canon can be as limited as someone who only read fluff. Variety is the spice of life — in everything: food, hobbies, books.

    Most of all, I have to disagree with Seneca on this statement: “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.”

    As someone who has too many books unread, I offer this rebuttal:

    “The buying of more books than one can read is nothing less than the soul reaching towards infinity, and this passion is the only thing that raises us above the beast that perish.” ~ Alfred Edward Newton

    Take that, Seneca!


  10. Dark Orpheus said what I was thinking–variety is the spice of life! I do think it is good to read deeply and know some very good authors very well, but I know I would never be able to stick with only those. If Seneca were here today do you think many women authors would make his cut? I don’t know much at all about Seneca or his environment–I am sure that would be very telling. I guess I will continue on with a “fussy stomach”.


  11. Ooops! Seneca nailed a number of us with this essay. However, consider what we have to choose from; his selection did not begin to compare with ours! I need to sample a bit of what is out there, and I disagree with the metaphoric “fussy stomach,” –I’d say with some of the trash I read that my stomach is cast-iron.

    I love the classics, the ancients (some of them), and those authors who have stood the test of time, but indulge in the bon-bons of mystery and fantasy and science fiction with good appetite.


  12. I love reading “different authors and books of every description”, including the classics. I agree with Samuel Johnson: “A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good.”


  13. I’m reading slowly with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, trying to absorb it. I’m finding it increasingly frustrating, like I’m not “getting the book” – but I’m not sure what to do. I might have to find some theory on it. Regardless, I do like conceptually the idea of taking time with authors to fully absorb, but I find it difficult to put into practice.


  14. “I feel someone who read ONLY the canon can be as limited as someone who only read fluff.”

    Oh no you di’n’t!! Dark Orpheus, you’re equating the most profound, most artistic, most influential works of literature with fluff?!? That’s crazy talk! And to suggest that the canon lacks variety is equally ridiculous. Does fluff go back thousands of years and span continents and civilizations? I didn’t think so.

    No one is required to read the canon, but we should at least respect it.


  15. I think I would have to reluctantly agree with Seneca. I have indeed started reading books (of great critical acclaim) and, upon finding them not to be works of genius, put them away, never to be read. In some cases I felt so insulted by them, that I would refuse to pass them on for others to read.

    Sylvia – ‘fluff’ does indeed span thousands of years. I once read a book for a Classics course about a character named Giton. In my youth I found it titillating to read these adventures of illicit sex, partying, and gorging; however, that book seems about the equivalent of Harlequin romance, in the end.

    I would have to support Orpheus, because ‘canon’ and ‘fluff’ are somewhat defined by feeling and perception – which are clearly not concrete.


  16. Heh. All right, “contemporary fluff,” then.


  17. verbivore

    I’m with you Dorothy, and I can’t help seeing a little flaw in his logic – if no one reads new authors (only tried and true of unquestionable genius) then how does genius ever get discovered? Because I can’t believe the world isn’t constantly recreating new genius.


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