Ecclesiastes 12:12

"The passion for reading which many pride themselves on as a precious intellectual quality, is in reality a defect; it differs in no wise from the other passions that monopolize the soul, keep it in a state of disturbance, set up in it uncertain currents and cross-currents, and exhaust its powers.

"We must read intelligently, not passionately.  We must go to books as a housekeeper goes to market when she has settled her menus for the day according to the laws of hygiene and wise spending.  The mind of the housekeeper at the market is not the mind she will have in the evening at the cinema.  She is not now thinking of enjoyment and dazzled wonderment, but of running her house and seeing to its well-being.

"The mind is dulled, not fed, by inordinate reading, it is made gradually incapable of reflection and concentration, and therefore of production; it grows inwardly extroverted, if one can so express oneself, becomes the slave of its mental images, of the ebb and flow of ideas on which it has eagerly fastened its attention.  This uncontrolled delight is an escape from self; it ousts the intelligence from its function and allows it merely to follow point for point the thoughts of others, to be carried along in the stream of words, developments, chapters, volumes.

"The continual sight stimuli thus occasioned destroy mental energy, as constant vibration wears out steel.  There is no real work to be expected from the great reader, when he has overstrained his eyes and the membranes of his brain; he is in a state of chronic mental headache, while the wise worker, preserving his self-control, calm and clear-headed, reads only what he wants to retain, retains only what will be useful, manages his brain prudently and does not abuse it by cramming it absurdly."

--A.G. Sertillanges, O.P., The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods (1920), trans. Mary Ryan (1946) (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1987), pp. 146-48.   

With thanks to Mike Hogue for sharing his reading with me.


  1. First of all, I have been reading your blog for a while, now, and have found your thoughts, especially on the practice of writing, very interesting.

    I was wondering whether you thought this account of passionate reading, so to speak, was sound. Is there a place for this kind of reading? Or is it always disturbing to the soul in the way that Sertillanges describes, here?

    - another Rachel

    1. Hi, Rachel! I think, given the context, that Sertillanges is very sound. I understand "passionate" as he uses it here in much the same way Robert Boice talks about the hypomania that accompanies writing in binges. The key is mindfulness and moderation. I in fact used this passage this past weekend at our women's retreat, where we were talking about abundance. Abundance is a good thing--but excess is not. The thing is to find the sweet spot (as our priest put it) between scarcity and excess.


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