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April 8, 2020

Worthless Books

In line with his Stoic principle that “excess in any sphere is reprehensible,” Seneca (ca. 4 B.C. to 65 A.D.) has this to say about having too large a library:

Even in our studies, where expenditure is most worth while, it justification depends on its moderation. What is the point of having countless books and libraries whose titles the owner could scarcely read through in his whole lifetime? The mass of books burdens the student without instructing him, and it is far better to devote yourself to a few authors than to get lost among many. Forty thousand books were burned in the library at Alexandria. Someone else can praise it as a sumptuous monument to royal wealth, like Titus Livius, who calls it a notable achievement of the good taste and devotion of kings. That was not good taste or devotion, but scholarly self-indulgence – in fact, not even scholarly, since they had collected the books not for scholarship but for display. In the same way you will find that many peole who lack even elementary culture keep books not as tools of learning but as decoration for their dining-rooms. So we should buy enough books for use, and none just for embellishment….How can you excuse a man who collects bookcases of citron-wood and ivory, amasses the works of unknown or third-rate authors, and then sits yawning among all his thousands of books and gets more enjoyment out of the appearance of his volumes and their labels? – “On Tranquillity of Mind,” in Seneca: Dialogues and Letters, ed. and trans. C.D.N. Costa (New York: Penguin Classics, rep. 2005), pg. 45