I’m reading Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, which is basically a 2,000-year-old advice column.
Here’s what he said in letter 2 about reading, and specifically, spending a lot of time reading writers “whose genius is unquestionable”:
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.
While I am a great proponent of reading more than one book at a time and letting books talk to each other, I also believe that when you find a writer who unlocks something in you, you should spend as much time with them as you can, read and re-read everything they wrote, and then “swim upstream” and try to read what they read.
This need not happen all at once. I like to think of these writers as old friends that I can rely on. No matter where we are, we can pick up where we left off.
Right now I’m reading Charles Portis’s The Dog of the South for the third time. (I’ve read all his novels twice.) And the normal things are happening that happen during a re-read — I’m noticing new things I never noticed before, re-underlining passages that I’ve already underlined — but I’m also starting to feel like I’m really understanding what’s going on in his sentences.
I re-read Donna Tartt’s remembrance of him and laughed out loud when she recalls their first phone conversation:
“Oh I beg your pardon. I thought you were my crank caller… I have a regular crank caller and almost every day he telephones about this time. If I don’t pick up he rings and rings.”
“Do you know who it is?”
“No, it is just some prankster. Local, I think. Many people around here do not seem to have much to do.”
“That must be a big nuisance.”
“No. To tell you the truth I am a little disappointed on the days he does not telephone. I have come to look forward to his calls.”
This exchange reads almost exactly like something out of his novels. My reaction is the kind you would have upon hearing from somebody something your friend had said to them. “Yeah, that sounds just like Charlie.”