As a new year is about to begin, many of us are thinking about how we’d like to get healthier, wealthier, and wiser over the next twelve months. Of course, to the Stoics, what really mattered was that final bucket—getting wiser. Understanding yourself and the world better was their primary focus.
So if your goal is to get smarter this year, where will you start? For most people, the obvious answer is books. A lot of people begin the year committing to read a certain number of books. I am going to read 50 books this year. I am finally going to finish the entire works of Howard Zinn. Once again, the Stoics might urge caution.
They would encourage you to begin this year by committing not to read widely, but read deeply. To dive into a handful of the wisest texts and come to know the authors like you had lived with them. As Seneca advised Lucilius in one of his letters:
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…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…There is nothing so efficacious that it can be helpful while it is being shifted about. And in reading of many books is distraction.
Today, with 2020 bearing down on us, we are encouraging you to follow that timeless wisdom. Listen to David McCullough’s advice, too. “Study a masterpiece,” he says, “take it apart, study its architecture, its vocabulary, its intent. Underline, make notes in the margins, and after a few years, go back and read it again.”
While we’d never claim that The Daily Stoic is a masterpiece, it is one of those books you can return to again and again. It’s designed that way, in fact. (It’s also on sale for $1.99 on Amazon in the US right now, and on sale in the UK as well). Tolstoy’s A Calendar of Wisdom is similar. One page a day, every day, for a year. It’s an awesome format, one not used often enough.
But you could also break down Seneca’s letters this way—read one letter a day. Or one passage from Marcus each morning. Or one poem from Emily Dickinson each day. Or one page of the Bible each evening before bed. For thousands of years, the Jewish people have divided up the Torah in what they call Parashat ha-Shavua (portion of the week) to be read aloud at synagogue, so that the entire Torah can be cycled through annually.
A new year sits before you. Use it wisely. Commit to read deeply and regularly. It will change you over the next fifty two weeks…and then January 1st next year, if you’re still here, you can start again as a new person and be changed once more.