One of the ironies of our existence is that the problems we face are almost never new. We typically think they're new, of course, and that makes us feel nice about ourselves. No one likes to feel stuck in a metaphysical rut, after all. Yet we're struggling and fighting against many of the same foibles and patterns our ancestors and ancients faced.
For this reason Seneca's second letter seems bemusingly familiar as he exhorts his friend to avoid a problem that seems all too familiar: information overload. To address which, Seneca advises, "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."
Who knew that this problem existed even when books were scarce and had to be meticulously copied by hand. And yet, in the ensuing millennia, with all our technological prowess and abundance of information, we've yet to come up with an adequate philosophy for processing, valuing, and integrating knowledge.
We read widely and superficially without understanding connecting what we've read. We speed through our reading, feeling forced to finish it quickly so we can move on to the next book, article, or study. With the vast amounts of information and content constantly being generated, we risk falling behind if we don't keep moving. Perhaps in part it is because being up to date on the latest content and bestsellers is a status symbol, or feels like a professional necessity. Perhaps we're wading through vast amounts of content looking for the one Answer that will change everything. Whatever the reason, it illustrates how bad we are at applying the lessons we've learned from human psychology to improve our lives. For example, we all know what we need to do to eat more healthily and stay at a good weight: less sugar and processed wheat, and more vegetables. But we want something easy. In the case of books, as with all knowledge and insight, what we "learn" isn't nearly as important as how we learn it.
Like eating well, reading deeply is difficult and taxing until a habit is made of it. It is easier to read superficially and widely, and we often feel edified if we can remember one keen insight to share about the book if we need to, to prove to ourselves and those we're trying to impress that we did in fact go through the trouble of reading the book.
Yet how well, in truth, can we recall the details of a book, blog post, or news article we read even the day before? And how have we applied or integrated what we've learned into our lives or our mental models of the world?
Of course there are other factors at work, too, especially with human memory being what it is. Like reading deeply, remembering things vividly and unforgettably takes effort that is hard to muster in a scattered, hectic day. We are dispersed and dissipated, mere skirmishers able to reconnoitre but unable to hold the hill and take a stand or put up a real fight. Seneca uses vivid images to illustrate this point about reading. "To be everywhere is to be nowhere. People who spend their whole life travelling abroad end up having plenty of places where they can find hospitality but no real friendships. The same must need be the case with people who never set about acquiring an intimate acquaintanceship with any one great writer, but skip from one to another, paying flying visits to them all."
The metaphor of the vapid traveler cuts both ways. Reading deeply and creatively (or not) can also be a metaphor for how we engage daily with the world and with each other, in all its messy varieties. In what other ways do we consume and regurgitate back to our friends, colleagues, and acquaintances rather than synthesizing, integrating, and creating something new and personal? As Seneca noted, travel is one manifestation of this human tendency. Few of us can come back from a vacation, journey, or trip with more than vague general descriptors of the weather and what we did there. Our education system is certainly another manifestation, with the emphasis on conformity, passivity, and testing for rote memorization and other lower-level skills.
Instead, writes Seneca, we should return to the same books that have marked us, that define us: "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."
Getting to know less works but more intimately, perhaps counterintuitively, inspires more creativity. After all, no creation occurs in a vacuum. Creation is clever, unique synthesis. Even on a basic biological level, we all had a mother and a father, and grandparents before them. But creation and synthesis has to come from profundity of understanding. We need surrogate parents in the books we read. Otherwise it is all just pretentious parroting and clever quotations cunningly dropped to give us the one-up in conversational gamesmanship. Something I'm certainly quite guilty of. Speaking of which, Hemingway said it well, and even put together his own list of books any writer should know intimately. "In any art you’re allowed to steal anything if you can make it better, but the tendency should always be upward instead of down. And don’t ever imitate anybody. All style is, is the awkwardness of a writer in stating a fact. If you have a way of your own, you are fortunate, but if you try to write like somebody else, you’ll have the awkwardness of the other writer as well as your own."
And with our internet full of staggering amounts of information, content, and media, how much truly original content do we see? How much regurgitation of the same click-bait content and vapid drivel? How many other people's awkwardnesses are being brandished about?
With the access the internet provides to such a vast sum of content, knowledge, and creativity, finding our own voice or "awkwardness" should be simpler than ever, because there are exponentially more sources at our fingertips for us to absorb and integrate. But that integration is not an easy process, and requires that we wrestle with works that are greater than us, yet that we must improve on. That is the only way to develop our own voice and create our own style and personal pattern language. I'm speaking about writing, of course, but also of thinking and of engaging with the world. Because writing well means thinking well, and clear thought informs our actions. Thinking well allows us to make our own choices and decisions about the course of our life, to read the stars as it were and chart a course with our own personal life philosophy. If philosophy is the art of living well and dying well, then we could all use more of that. All writers (and therefore thinkers) began by reading, just as babies had to listen for years before being capable of uttering more than a few nonsense words. Reading can't be and certainly isn't the only route to carving one's own philosophy (and we either carve our own or buy someone else's), but at this point I'm speaking to the people like me who feel compelled to read precisely because those other ways of discovering and understanding are fundamentally insufficient for them, at least on their own. Reading, and by extension writing, can be and in many cases should be measured reflection that inspires our actions to come, not mere abstract pretensions performed in a vacuum of theory.
Alas, we can open up a book but the book often doesn't open up to us. Not fully, not at first. Like any good relationship it takes time and effort before the great, memorable conversations come that spark piles of kindling within us that we didn't know were there because it was too dark. These are the memorable conversations that fuel us spiritually and make us say, this is what being human is all about, the internet and computers and cars and electricity be damned.
Then I remember I'm typing this on a computer and I retract that last phrase. Technology is amazing, and I should be more grateful for it. But technology is terrible at correcting- it mainly amplifies the faults or the strengths that are already there. Anyway.
Conversations with books. Perhaps that's the right way to engage with books. Conversationally. Or confrontationally, angrily if need be, but to engage with it beyond the superficial "Hello, how are you? Nice weather outside. What's new with you?"
We are the average of the six closest people to us, as the platitude goes- who are our six closest books?
As is usually the case, the key is finding the right balance- between reading deeply and widely. We all need great, close friends who inspire us and push us to be our best selves. We also need to meet new people and make acquiantances and hope that eventually some of them will become friends, as well, otherwise we suffocate our old friends or feel suffocated by them. Any good relationship is a mix of togetherness and apartness, and good books need breathing room, too. Meeting new books and works can provide context and insight that we can anchor to the foundation we've built from our deep conversations with our close books, our personal canon, our unique library of classics (Calvino: "Your classic is a book... which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it"). Reading widely can help connect the dots and spark creative connections- but only if there are dots there to connect in the first place.
And it is great to read to be entertained, of course. Great literature, after all, should provide insightful observations into the human condition but above all else it should be a pleasure to read. Reading can be and should be a great way to relax. But we also need to be aware of when we we're reading superficially, for pleasure or exploration, versus when we're reading deeply to understand, connect, and converse. And not kid ourselves about what we've read deeply and truly understood.
To your prosperous reading,
Dillon Dakota Carroll
These musings are in reference to Letter II in the Penguin edition of Seneca's Letters From a Stoic.
...sees much and knows much