Seneca’s Timeless Advice on the Art of Reading

Reading a great book (specifically nonfiction) is to acquire, within a matter of hours, the insights and knowledge that the author spent months, years, and sometimes decades developing. In this sense, books are knowledge multipliers, shortcuts to years of research and thinking, and the more books you read, the more hard-won knowledge you accumulate in a fraction of the time.

Reading is therefore your most powerful intellectual tool. While we all read for different reasons—sometimes simply for entertainment or to extract some quick information—reading for true self-improvement comes from intentional, analytical reading. The question is, how do you optimize your reading habits for maximum intellectual development? 

This was the question posed to the Stoic philosopher Seneca by Lucilius, the procurator of Sicily. Seneca provided his answer in the second letter of a larger collection of philosophical meditations titled Letters from a Stoic. Seneca wrote:

“Be careful, however, lest this reading 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.

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.

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.”

Seneca’s main point is that it is better to become thoroughly familiar with, and retain more from, one great book (or author) than to forget most of what you read from several books (or authors). 

The logic is simple. First, there are more books available than you have the time to read. Therefore, with each book comes an opportunity cost, which is the value of the books you don’t read that you sacrifice by reading the current selection. Since time is limited, you want to minimize opportunity cost by reading the best books by the best authors (so, for example, think about replacing the latest self-help guru with Seneca or Marcus Aurelius). 

Second, if you read, say, a random assortment of 50 books a year as quickly as you can, but retain only a small percentage of what you read (and only superficial information at that), then you are mostly wasting your time. It is better to deeply understand one profound book if the ideas stick with you long after you’ve finished the book, and especially if they impact the way you think and live. (The classics tend to have this effect; that’s why they’re still discussed hundreds or thousands of years later, whereas the latest releases in pop psychology are largely forgotten within a few years.)

This has some empirical support. The “forgetting curve,” as it is called by psychologists studying memory, is a mathematical representation of the decline in memory retention over time. It is steepest during the first 24 hours, so if you don’t take the time to reflect on and review the material you’ve read, much of it will become permanently lost. 

This means that if you decide to rapidly progress through books, you only steepen the forgetting curve. Not only are you not reviewing the material for long-term retention, you’re also helping to push it out faster with new material. 

The individual who reads a lot of mediocre books in rapid succession not only faces the opportunity cost of not reading better books, but also the cost of a steepening forgetting curve that makes it hard to retain even the mediocre information. 

Seneca’s timeless advice

Seneca’s advice is even more applicable today. We have almost instant access to the entire collection of writings the world has ever produced (at least the ones that have survived), in addition to hundreds of titles published each year. 

We are saturated in information and driven to distraction. Websites encourage us to read as many books as possible, and some readers try to impress us by reviewing as many books as possible. Seneca would tell you to resist the bait, slow down, and re-prioritize. 

Seneca would tell us to carefully select the best books (and return often to the great ones). He would advise us to pursue slower, more interactive reading (and re-reading), engaging in constant conversation with the author, taking notes in the margins and thinking about points of agreement, disagreement, and connections to other books. He might also suggest writing book reviews or summaries, or else maintaining a collection of notes to aid retention. Above all, he would advise you to slow down and fully engage with the books you read. 

Further Reading

You can begin your slower, more intentional reading habits by checking out Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading or Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had.

Also check out Letters from a Stoic by Seneca, where the second letter to Lucilius, discussed above, can be found. 

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