Plumb Lines

April 21, 2009

Skimming Sertillanges

Filed under: Uncategorized — Keith Staples @ 3:09 pm

Here’s one of my favorite passages from one of my favorite books, A.G. Sertillanges The Intellectual Life. I feel my heart convicted whenever I re-read it:

We want to develop breadth of mind, to practice comparative study, to keep the horizon before us ; these things cannot be done without much reading. But much and little are opposites only in the same domain. . .[M]uch is necessary in the absolute sense, because the work to be done is vast; but little, relatively to the deluge of writing that…floods our libraries and our minds nowadays.

What we are proscribing is the passion for reading, the uncontrolled habit, the poisoning of the mind by excess of mental food, the laziness in disguise which prefers easy familiarity with others’ thought to personal effort.

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 other passions that monopolize the soul , keep it in a state of disturbance, set it in uncertain currents and cross-currents, and exhaust its powers.

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.

[N]ever read when you can reflect; read only, except in moments of recreation, what concerns the purpose you are pursuing; and read little, so as not to eat up your interior silence.

This is the passage to which I advert to explain my feelings of deep ambivalence toward the blogosphere. Whatever its advantages, I find that it feeds, instantly and abundantly, my uncontrolled appetite for fragmentary opinions, and images, weakens my powers of attention, and disturbs the “interior silence” that allows me to hear the truth. The pleasure of a two-hour blog-binge comes mostly from the sense of carnival: an orgy of various ideas and impressions in my mind. And, truth to tell, I also nurture my vanity, feeling self-satisfied as I reflect on the diversity of discourses in which I, in my glorious intellectual richness, take a lively and supposedly intelligent interest. A vague sense of exaltation attends the transition from an urbanist forum to a passionate discussion of divine transcendence.

But what, in the end, have I achieved? Nothing. Nothing at all. I cannot pretend to the expansive catholicity of a great mind like Goethe or a superior mind like Fr. Neuhaus. Their catholicity rounded out and gave context to expertise. I do not even have the dignity of a being a failure because I haven’t been able to settle on an objective long enough to fail. This ephemeral intellectual existence of mine can be explained almost entirely by spastic reading habits that I hereby vow to change. Amen.

-Keith Staples



  1. Thank you for indulging a feeble mind. It confirms my sense of insatiable appetite for reading while retroactively withering my ability to self reflect. It reminds me of Mark Rothko when he said,

    “When I was a younger man, art was a lonely thing. No galleries, no collectors, no critics, no money. Yet, it was a golden age, for we all had nothing to lose and a vision to gain. Today it is not quite the same. It is a time of tons of verbiage, activity, consumption. Which condition is better for the world at large I shall not venture to discuss. But I do know, that many of those who are driven to this life are desperately searching for those pockets of silence where we can root and grow. We must all hope we find them.”

    Comment by Evun — May 13, 2009 @ 10:20 am

  2. This is so much food for thought. More importantly, it has helped me to be gently with myself for being so guilty at not reading enough — a “time” crisis.


    Comment by Jovita — January 31, 2012 @ 4:51 am

  3. Somewhere else in The Intellectual Life, which I read in 1962, the author says “Do you have two hours per day (to devote to your work)?”. This is very encouraging for me now, as I no longer have the energy to work 8 or even 4 hours a day.

    RIchard Mullins

    Comment by richard mullins — March 10, 2012 @ 7:18 am

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