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What I'm Reading (No. 81): ancient philosophy + new-ish memoir
This week I wrapped up Seneca's Letters from a Stoic, which I've been reading for a few months, just one letter a day. Without a doubt it's a book I'll be returning to again.
I also finished Boy Erased, which is our next book club pick. I'll write about it some, but wait until we've had our discussion for the full review.
Let's do it.
Letters from a Stoic by Seneca (many hundreds of years ago, 233 pages)
"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."
Seneca was a wealthy old Roman (4 BC - 65 AD) who played the part of philosopher and political advisor. At the age of 64 he was forced to commit suicide for his (likely fabricated) role in a conspiracy. Even in his innocence, he committed the act with a calm and, dare I say, stoic demeanor.
He wrote a number of letters, plays, and essays, which were highly revered almost immediately. The early Christian church even considered him to be nearly on the same plane as the saints. And yet today, unfortunately, his works aren't all that well-known outside of academia or the new Stoic movement.
Letters is, however, one of the pillars of the Stoic oeuvre for good reason. It's pithy, contemplative, inspiring, motivating, and quite clearly to me, an all-time work of philosophical and wisdom literature.
Composed to his friend Lucilius, it's likely that these letters, though indeed sent and received, were actually intended for a broader reading public. The details are a little hazy, which is understandable given that this all happened about 2,000 years ago.
I read these letters over the course of a few months, taking in a single entry each morning as a form of "devotional" reading.
"Each day, too, acquire something which will help you to face poverty, or death, and other ills as well. After running over a lot of different thoughts, pick out one to be digested thoroughly that day."
You can see in the quote above that Seneca himself was a fan of this type of reading. Just 5-15 minutes or so each morning, and my mind was well-primed — to face whatever challenge may arise, to do the work necessary, to accept whatever the day would bring.
While common with religious texts, devotional reading can also happen with anything that stirs the soul, whether it's philosophy, poetry, essays, personal development, etc. (Now that I'm done with Seneca, I'm moving to reading a few pages of Whitman's collected poems each morning.)
One more bit of advice from Seneca that I'm particularly fond of:
"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."
A Stoic Reading List
I don't always agree with Stoicism, but I do find its readings to be incredibly moving. They're not generally these harsh motivational gut punches, but often rather lyrical in composition. And since I've written a couple of articles for work on the ancient philosophy, I've read quite a bit within the topic. My favorite readings, both ancient and modern:
Letters from a Stoic by Seneca. See above.
Discourses by Epictetus. Another classic of the genre. Along with the above two, this sort of rounds out the Big Three of Stoic lit.
A Guide to the Good Life by William Irvine. By far the best modern guide to Stoicism. Really good book.
How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald Robertson. New this year, and written more as a narrative that focuses on the life of Marcus Aurelius.
Ego Is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday. Not strictly about Stoicism, but Holiday pulls a lot of his own philosophy from that school of thought. I've not read The Obstacle Is the Way, but it's in the same vein, as is the upcoming Stillness Is the Key. His Daily Stoic is also pretty good, and pulls more directly from the ancients.
There are a lot more than this. I've read them. These are the best.
Boy Erased by Garrard Conley (2016, 340 pages)
For now, I'll just give you a broad outline of the interesting points of the book rather than giving my full thoughts. As noted above, I'd like to have our book club discussion before doing that.
Conley grew up in the south in a Baptist family; his dad ran a car dealership and then at about the age of 50 decided to pursue pastoral work. In the midst of that, Garrard is outed as gay during his time in college and ultimately willingly attends conversion therapy. It does not go well, to say the least.
I saw the movie first (which is great, btw), and there’s obviously overlap with the plot, but the writing here is rather good enough to stand on its own and make it worthwhile. Memoirs are always hit and miss for me, but this one was definitely a winner. Conley’s writing is fluid and graceful (his MFA sure helps) and so much more forgiving than you’d expect given the story.
It's a little long at times (I generally prefer memoirs to be under 300 pages) and occasionally heavy on metaphor (fast food ketchup cups are like a line of rubies under a fluorescent sky). But it's a quick read, so those are easy complaints to move beyond. There are some dark parts, and but Boy Erased ends superbly with a lot of love and hope.
That's all for me this week. Enjoy your weekend everyone, and thank you as always for the time and inbox space.