Letters from a Stoic

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Detail from “Head of an Old Man, Possibly Seneca,”
Circle of Peter Paul Rubens; circa 1620. I captured the image at the Rubens, Rembrandt, and Drawing in the Golden Age exhibition at the Art Institute.

Letter II
Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.

Letter III
For a delight in bustling about is not industry — it is only the restless energy of a hunted mind. And the state of mind that looks on all activity as tiresome is not true repose, but a spineless inertia.

Letter V
:: Finding wealth an intolerable burden is the mark of an unstable mind.

:: Wild animals run from the dangers they actually see, and once they have escaped them worry no more. We however are tormented alike by what is past and what is to come. A number of our blessings do us harm, for memory brings back the agony of fear while foresight brings it on prematurely. No one confines his unhappiness to the present.

Letter IX
What is my object in making a friend? To have someone to be able to die for, someone I may follow into exile, someone for whose life I may put myself up as security and pay the price as well. The thing you describe is not friendship but a business deal, looking to the likely consequences, with advantage as its goals.

Letter XVIII
It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself to deal with difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favours on it then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs.

Letter XCI
The fact that it was unforeseen has never failed to intensify a person’s grief. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events. For what is there that fortune does not when she pleases fell at the height of its powers?

A reading life review

In June, we removed the television from the living room. It’s as if it were never there.

While I typically read between 120 and 150 books each year, I knew that serving as move coordinator for my daughters and spending nearly the entire summer away from home would likely cut into my reading time. I settled on a more realistic goal of 104 books in 2019, and at ninety-five books read and a little more than two months remaining to read at least another nine, I think I chose well. Although I have read fewer books than usual, I did discover some terrific television, some of which I watched in my daughters’ new living room and some of which I watched in the former “girl cave” when I returned home:

Season 3 of The Handmaid’s Tale
Seasons 1 – 3 of Harlots
Season 4 of Veronica Mars
Seasons 1 – 3 of GLOW
Season 3 of Stranger Things
Seasons 1 – 7 of Orange Is the New Black
Seasons 1 and 2 of Mindhunters

Great stuff, but this is a reading life review, so… about a year ago, I crafted a bold reading challenge for myself: Read one hundred books from my shelves (i.e., books in my collection before the end of 2018), including at least twenty-four non-fiction titles and at least one book from each of the following “special collections”: Shakespeare, poetry, NYRB, Vonnegut, Joyce Carol Oates, philosophy, art, and children’s / YA. I also planned to make short work of 2018’s unfinished business and to closely (re)read Moby Dick.

So, how am I doing so far?

Total number of books read to date: 95
Read from shelves (RFS): 42
Non-fiction RFS: 15
Shakespeare RFS: Hamlet
Poetry RFS: Lunch Poems (Frank O’Hara)
NYRB RFS: The Summer Book (Tove Jansson)
Vonnegut RFS: Player Piano
Joyce Carol Oates RFS: The Rise of Life on Earth
Art RFS: But is it art? (Cynthia Freeland)
Children’s / YA RFS: Milkweed (Jerry Spinelli)

I finished the seven books I carried over from 2018, and the Melville project is slated to begin next weekend. I selected Letters from a Stoic as my philosophy RFS. By completing it and the three other non-fiction titles on my nighstand, I would reach nineteen non-fiction works RFS. It remains to be seen whether I can read another five non-fiction titles from the shelves before the end of the year. (Although it was not a goal specific to this year, it is worth noting that I have already read thirty non-fiction works this year, even before the four on the nightstand, so I am poised to outpace previous years’ goals in that area.)

Clearly, though, I will not meet the goal of one hundred books read from the shelves. The fact that so many of the books I had been reading in recent years were newly published and / or acquired in the year they were read had largely informed my “Read from the shelves” challenge (that and the embarrassment of riches that is my home library). It was never my intent to cease acquiring new books, only to acquire more thoughtfully and to make better use of the library. That said, of the ninety-five books I’ve read so far this year, only twenty-four were published this year. Twenty-three books on my 2019 list were acquired this year, ten of which were published in 2019. Twenty-three of this year’s books were borrowed from the library.

“That’s one of the risks you take.”

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From the poem “On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday”:

You’ll never be mentally sober.

From The Summer House:

p. 80
That’s strange, Grandmother thought. I can’t describe things any more. I can’t find the words, or maybe it’s just that I’m not trying hard enough. It was such a long time ago. No one here was even born. And unless I tell it because I want to, it’s as if it never happened; it gets closed off and then it’s lost. She sat up and said, “Some days I can’t remember very well. But sometime you ought to try and sleep in a tent all night.”

p. 127
“I didn’t know that,” Grandmother said. “No one told me.” She went into the guest room and tried to read. Of course, you moved a potted plant to wherever it would get on best. It would do fine on the veranda for a week. If you were going to be gone longer than that, you had to leave it with someone who could water it. It was a nuisance. Even potted plants got to be a responsibility, like everything else you took care of that couldn’t make decisions for itself.

p. 131
“Oh, you mean he’s dead,” said Grandmother. She started thinking about all the euphemisms for death, all the anxious taboos that had always fascinated her. It was too bad you could never have an intelligent discussion on the subject. People were either too young or too old, or else they didn’t have the time.

And from George Takei’s graphic memoir, They Called Us Enemy:

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