Do you ever look around and realize there’s more out there than you’ll ever be able to watch, read, or listen to? I have that feeling all the time, especially when it comes to what books I choose to read. It seems like there are always new books coming out that may be interesting or entertaining.
So where do you start when it’s time to pick up something to read, when there is so much to choose from?
The question itself isn’t new. In fact, Seneca, the ancient Stoic philosopher, had the following advice for choosing what to read from the myriad of available options:
“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. People who spend their whole life traveling abroad end up having plenty of places where they can find hospitality but no real friendships. The same must needs 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…
“…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. (Letter II)
Seneca’s approach was simple. Stick with what you know to be good; focus on a few great authors and books instead of always exploring new ones. By intentionally going back to the great ones over and over again, you’ll learn more from them—and be changed to a greater extent—than if you spread out your time indiscriminantly.
Now, although I personally don’t read well-tried authors exclusively, I do think his advice highlights an important point. In reading a book, we’re making an investment of time. As such, it makes sense to try to get the most value we can out of that investment. And one way to do this is to stick to those works that have already proven themselves in the past.
In the world of finance, if you’re going to speculate, you typically do so with a small portion of your portfolio, not the whole thing. You keep the bulk of your portfolio in things that have a track record.
Similarly, when we decide to invest time in reading, there are plenty of great books and authors that have proven themselves to generation after generation. And so, if we’re going to read anything, it makes sense to at least allocate a generous portion of our time to these kinds of investments.