Short, Relatable Stoic Insights for the Night: On Discursiveness in Reading

I’m only one letter in but Seneca literally slapped me on the face.

I could’ve condensed what I gained from the book into one article only, but 1) I haven’t finished the book, and 2) when I’ve learnt so much just from a single letter, it seems disrespectful of me to do so.

Some personal story first.

I’ve recently picked up reading as a habit again, but there’s always one thing that’s bugging me.

I start more books than I can finish.

Sometimes I ascribe it to the repetitive reinforcement of the same ideas, other times my justification is how diverging and “unacceptable” an idea is to be contained in my own realm of thoughts and values.

It doesn’t matter. The point is — I always start more books than I can finish.

But does the whole quitting a book midway through the read really matter?

To me, yes.

It’s like ordering more food than you can finish, except in a much more consequential way.

It is not the food that I cannot consume, that I decide to give up — but the value of books at their full potential.

It seems counterintuitive to say such a thing, when I literally get fed up with them because of the same reasons which prove that their value to me may be negligible. But deep down, I still think that however trivial it is, a book always adds value to my mental clarity, if not my life.

And this doesn’t have to be the book per se. Just the process of reading and finishing it is valuable.

Somehow, I stumbled upon Seneca’s work tonight.

I’ve never been a religious person but I felt like I’d been blessed.

Very coincidentally, the first letter is about reading. And I didn’t even realise it until I’d finished the short letter, because the chapter literally only goes “Letter II”, nothing more.

I’ve always heard that Stoicism is a discipline that originates during very early times, yet its philosophy never gets old. Even the most ancient works are very readable and hold truth in modern circumstances.

What a solid claim.

Here are some insights from Letter II: on Discursiveness in Reading that echo my heart, followed by my thoughts and afterthoughts. I hope to bring out your most genuine, personal reflections that are regrettably shielded from the hustle and bustle, or at least instill in you a sense of reflection.

I actually only put this in the “goals” context and the “relationship” context the first time I read it.

Have one major goal and operationalise it by breaking down in chunks, then bits, for easier implementation. Spend some quality time alone and reflect — reflections are crucial.

But in hindsight — what a triple entendre.

This also applies to reading, in the sense that you do not “multi-read” and forget all the details you shall be able to grasp. What’s even better is to read a book in a state that minimises or eliminates distractions, then spare some time to reflect on what you’ve read and gather your thoughts.

Apparently this is also what Bill Gates, an indisputably successful entrepreneur and an avid reader, has to say about reading.

This quote came at a very unexpected time. For months I’ve been setting goals on how many books I shall read this year, essentially quantifying my reading experience.

It’s nice in the sense that it gives me the discipline to read. But it is achieved at the expense of a little pleasurable experience.

And I thought that’s normal. That I did not have to care. That finishing more books means more knowledge, more insights, more intelligence.

Reflecting upon this reflection I feel like I was such an arrogant prick, for actually legitimising the idea that more books = more knowledge. Quantifying something usually, if not always, fails to take into account the invaluable, intangible aspects. In this case, one of which is the quality of my reading experience.

I thought I was already very familiar with this quantity vs quality debate/dilemma; but apparently after 19 years of living, I’m still not mastering the art of decision-making that produces an option from which maximises the value I can derive.

Sacrificing quality for quantity in reading is such a foolish choice.

You can absentmindedly finish a dozen of books in a month and learn much less than you can from pouring your heart into a few books. Do more stuff but in a lacklustre manner and you get nothing. Do less stuff but with your blood, sweat and tears and you squeeze all the realisable value out of them.

While I’m in no place to delve into the literal derivation since I’m no expert in biology, I think — and since this is directly preceded by the book quote — the subtext of this is not to be so greedy in acquiring new insights. A number of books are only going to help you so much if you savour every one of them thoroughly.

As much as I might agree with (I’m still rather conservative about this, to be very honest) speed-reading/skimming through a book if you’ve come across the exact same idea from another book, it’s just as important not to “multi-read” as it is to multitask. “Multi-read” is bad because it’s hard to immerse yourself into the different realms several books have to offer, having to swerve to and fro hastily.

I remember telling myself last June not to multitask to get more things done, e.g., not to scroll through Medium articles or read a book during mealtime because more often than not, I ordered something I’d really looked forward to, but I couldn’t even savour its taste because I was simultaneously occupying myself with something else.

The contamination. I don’t want it. And I certainly do not want the same to happen in my reading journey.

Be so prepared for “unfortunate happenings” that when they — touch wood — struck, you’d be fine because very often, it’s not the “unfortunate happening” itself that causes your misery or pain, but your perception of it.

This reminds me of two books I’ve read and enjoyed. The first one is Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he so respectably did not brood over his sufferings in the concentration camps during WWII.

Instead, he was very thankful for every little blessing he’d received.

A bread crumb kindly shared by his other persecuted brothers was simple enough to move him to tears. Typing this equally moves me — imagine people were all counting their blessings, and the genuineness and warmth within which.

Another book is Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga’s The Courage to Be Disliked. The book also puts forward an idea in Adlerian psychology that there is no innate good or bad in things, and it’s only your view on them that imposes a good or bad attribute on the neutral surroundings and happenings.

On a side note, “unfortunate happenings” need not take the form of natural disasters, persecution, etc.

What, in my opinion, Seneca’s trying to convey is to be prepared for events that can hurt you, big or small. If not fulfilling something as conventional as getting straight As or a pay rise — or on a more intimate level, getting the recognition you deserve — is a very big deal for you, envision so and pay attention to your reaction.

Feel it so much such that you’d not be mentally broken if things really took a turn.

But if it is cheerful it is not poverty at all.

But if it is cheerful it is not poverty at all.

But if it is cheerful it is not poverty at all.

I mulled over this so, so much even though the latter sentence arguably carries much more meaning than the former.

You own a lot. In fact, you own more than enough. You’re only poor or unsatisfied because you’re always prone to comparing your possessions with others’.

This also reminds me of an incident with my favourite teacher in high school a few years ago. I was weeping, having told her that I did so poorly in one domain of my economics test. What and how she replied is still etched onto my mind,

“Yes, it’s certainly true that there are areas for improvement — but I also think it’s unfair to only fixate on them, turning a blind eye to what you’ve excelled at.”

Bless her. This will forever be imprinted on my heart, with love.

Allow me to end this piece with one last, insightful quote by Seneca:

Have a great, great night.

the impediment to action advances action, what stands in the way becomes the way —

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