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What to Read in Investing? Lesson from A 2,000-Year-Old Stoic Philosopher

I have lost count of how many investors have told me over the years that they never read anything apart from newspapers. They’re too busy to read books or even long articles, they say.

In fact, most people I’ve encountered read very little (despite the fact that, as per a study, an average Indian reads the most in the world, at around 90 minutes per day, as compared to 68 minutes of an average Chinese and 48 minutes of an average American).

Anyways, when people ask me what they should read to improve their investment thinking and/or to stay informed on the stock market, businesses, etc. and/or to just become better thinkers and decision makers, the first thing I ask them to do is to avoid reading newspapers (the law of inversion, you see, of what not do).

Then, if they are still interested, I tell them if they care less about signaling intelligence and connectedness, and more about understanding, then they should consider reading more and more things moving towards the Enduring side of my reading spectrum, instead of spending precious time on what’s Ephemeral

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Anyways, I recently found strong support for my thoughts on reading and re-reading the super-texts in one of the greatest philosophers the world has seen, Seneca.

Seneca was a Roman Stoic philosopher who lived during 4 BC – AD 65. He was a tutor and later advisor to emperor Nero, and was forced to commit suicide for alleged involvement in the conspiracy to assassinate Nero (though some sources state that he may have been innocent).

During the last two years of his life, Seneca spent his time in travelling, composing essays on natural history and in correspondence with his friend Lucilius. In these letters, 124 of which are available, he covered a wide variety of topics, including true and false friendship, sharing knowledge, old age, retirement, and death.

Coming to the topic of this post, here is what Seneca wrote in his second letter to Lucilius – On Discursiveness in Reading – which I am posting as it is here, and which contains the answer to the dilemma most of us face on what to read as investors (by the way, ‘discursiveness’ means moving from topic to topic without order) –

Over to Seneca.

On Discursiveness in Reading

The primary indication, to my thinking, of a well-ordered mind is a man’s ability to remain in one place and linger in his own company.

Be careful, however, lest this reading of many authors and books of every sort may tend to make you discursive and unsteady. You must linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind. Everywhere means nowhere.

When a person spends all his time in foreign travel, he ends by having many acquaintances, but no friends. And the same thing must hold true of men who seek intimate acquaintance with no single author, but visit them all in a hasty and hurried manner.

Food does no good and is not assimilated into the body if it leaves the stomach as soon as it is eaten; nothing hinders a cure so much as frequent change of medicine; no wound will heal when one salve is tried after another; a plant which is often moved can never grow strong. There is nothing so efficacious that it can be helpful while it is being shifted about. And in reading of many books is distraction.

Accordingly, since you cannot read all the books which you may possess, it is enough to possess only as many books as you can read.

“But,” you reply, “I wish to dip first into one book and then into another.” I tell you that it is the sign of an overnice appetite to toy with many dishes; for when they are manifold and varied, they cloy but do not nourish. So you should always read standard authors; and when you crave a change, fall back upon those whom you read before. Each day acquire something that will fortify you against poverty, against death, indeed against other misfortunes as well; and after you have run over many thoughts, select one to be thoroughly digested that day.

This is my own custom; from the many things which I have read, I claim some one part for myself.

At the end of this very letter, Seneca also shared his thoughts on the limits of one’s wealth. He wrote –

Epicurus says: “Contented poverty is an honourable estate.” Indeed, if it be contented, it is not poverty at all. It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor. What does it matter how much a man has laid up in his safe, or in his warehouse, how large are his flocks and how fat his dividends, if he covets his neighbour’s property, and reckons, not his past gains, but his hopes of gains to come?

Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? It is, first, to have what is necessary, and, second, to have what is enough.

From Seneca to Sherlock
As I was reading Seneca’s letter, I was reminded of what Sherlock Holmes told his accomplice Watson in A Study in Scarlet

I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it.

Holmes added…

Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. he will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.

As years have passed, I have turned from trying my hands at speed reading – acting like Holmes’ fool who takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across – to slow, thoughtful reading and re-reading.

I do not read more than 1-2 books a month now, and that I find is a gradual enough pace that helps me assimilate the ideas I read in a better manner. As a wise man said, slow reading is not so much about unleashing the reader’s creativity, as uncovering the author’s.

Often it’s the same old books – the supertexts – that I refer to again and again…for each time I go through them, I get a few new and brilliant insights that missed my eyes in the previous readings.

Don’t Read…Reread
Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita tells us –

Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it.

When we read a book for the first time, the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation. Only on a third or fourth reading do we start behaving toward a book as we would toward a painting, holding it all in the mind at once.

To bring back Seneca and what he wrote to Lucilius –

Be careful, however, lest this reading of many authors and books of every sort may tend to make you discursive and unsteady. You must linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind. Everywhere means nowhere.

While it’s a good idea to read stuff across domains and authors, if you are unsure of what to start and where to focus your intellectual capacities on, consider the super-texts. Read them once, and then read them again…and again…and you will do just fine.

The idea is to not be in perpetual locomotion and jump from one book or author to another…but to sit back, contemplate, and relate the facts you read to each other.

But start reading if you haven’t already, and start now, or you would miss out on the huge compounding benefits of the same as years pass.

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About the Author

Vishal Khandelwal is the founder of Safal Niveshak. He works with small investors to help them become smart and independent in their stock market investing decisions. He is a SEBI registered Research Analyst. Connect with Vishal on Twitter.


  1. Excellent article Vishal.Loved reading it. Although I dont agree on all of your views ???? but you do present many a things in a palatable way.Rereading really makes you rediscover yourself n your understanding and most importantly explore the author’s world..Same goes with watching great movies(You might differ on this).
    Overall its a very good article

  2. Vishal,

    Excellent post.

    I don’t read newspapers and a good friend of mine asked then how do you know what is happening around the world. After reflecting on it for a moment I thought he had a point and this is what I wrote to him.

    It came to my notice that almost everybody was acquainted with current events in their smallest details. The overlap between newspapers was so large that you would get less and less information the more you read. Yet everyone was so eager to become familiar with every fact that they read every freshly printed document and listened to every radio station as if the great answer was going to be revealed to them in the next bulletin. – Taleb

    If you’ve ever wondered how Warren Buffett got to be such a smart investor, all you have to do is watch him for a five-hour plane ride. He reads. A lot. And he reads quickly. His morning started with the Wall Street Journal, followed by USA Today and Forbes. The only reason he hasn’t read more is because we don’t have any more papers on the plane. Buffett generally reads five newspapers a day — the Journal, the Financial Times, the New York Times, USA Today and the Omaha World-Herald. Make that six he reads the American Banker every day too. – On Buffett’s reading

    Who’s right and whose advice should we follow? The answer is that both are right. How can we have two answers for the same question? Yes you can in real world. Remember an electron acts as both particle and wave. Taleb is right because we’re not good at recognizing changes that happen very slowly. This results in very high noise-to-signal ratio. Buffett is also right because he reads these papers with the right filters. What do I mean by a filter (mental models)? To get an answer for this question read this mind blowing article in which Sanjay Bakshi reads a news article by wearing different kinds of filters.

    If you’re like Buffett with wide varieties of filters then you can read newspapers daily. If not then I would follow Taleb’s advice. If you’re somewhere in the middle i.e developing or wanting to develop the right filters then I would do the following.

    (1) Subscribe to Economist which is a weekly magazine which summarizes worldly events very well. Looking at the world weekly helps to increase the signal-to-noise ratio.

    (2) Read business magazines like Outlook Business and Barrons. Reading weekly-to-monthly magazines increases your signal-to-noise ratio.

    (3) As for as companies are concerned I prefer reading the annual reports. If this is not enough for you then look at the quarterly reports. Still not enough you can setup a Google Alert by typing the name of the company in quotes. Another idea that some of my friends follow is to read the company filings like 8K to keep with the latest developments.

    To summarize you need to develop the right filters so that you can see the world as it is instead of viewing it according to your prejudices. The order of consuming news should be annual -> quarterly -> monthly -> [daily?].


    • R K Chandrashekar says:

      Dear Jana
      I liked your line of thinking, and am on the same wave length. So long as you are wearing the right filters on your frame, it doesn’t matter if you reading the news paper or watching CNBCTV18!!

  3. As someone who used to read a book every 15 days earlier, the speed has come down now. Maybe one book a month or two. Also have started taking notes instead of just glancing thru the pages. The stuff now starts staying in my mind unlike earlier times when the only interest was in finishing the book and moving on to the next.

  4. This is a very good blog post. I am finding it very useful. Recently, I was using this where the author talks about lindy effect and the need to understand basics. Vishal, your article is a valuable addition to the problem new investors face: where to start reading from and how much?. I appreciate you taking time and energy to go over problems like these and try to solve. We are all going to benefit from these articles. thank you very very much.

  5. Good write up Vishal – If Seneca’s works interests you, Do read Ryan Holiday’s – The obstacle is the way, Also there is a Tim Ferris Podcast with Ryan Holiday were they talk extensively on the topic


  6. Ketan Desai says:

    Very nice article, Vishal. I completely agree with various points you have made. My thoughts over this topic, briefly: Read various authors initially, but select very few and re-read those books / authors number of times. Occasionally, try books / authors on similar lines to see if you get something more to read…Like in investing or some line of your interest, agree to a fundamental thinking (like value investing vs. technical charting) and read to improve your own understanding. This all should help one (it definitely helped me) gain and improve upon a core competency which finally helps one to grow – in life, career and so on… I also liked your “reading list” priorities, comprehensive and useful, thanks for sharing!

  7. R K Chandrashekar says:

    Dear Vishal
    ‘ Reading maketh a complete man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man’, and if Bacon was alive, he would have pointed at you!!
    While on the subject of reading, I recently finished ‘ The long walk to freedom’ and have moved ‘ to ‘Man’s search for meaning’. My pace of reading has slowed down, and at any time, I have a backlog of 10 unread books in my library. I haven’t had the habit of rereading or making notes, so the retention is confined to my memory, the rest ???
    On the subject of newspapers, I haven’t banished the same; my family reads the Hindu, and I the Business Line, and yes I subscribe to the Outlook Traveller. I love travelling.

  8. I somewhat agree with Vishal, as reading for sake of reading or finishing the book will take you nowhere. But one of the blogger Jana has posted the benefit of reading more books with filters. I would like to make a point that Buffet or Munger has spent their life reading books, reports and news papers also they have gained hands on experience from their business. So there is huge time factor there. Which is lacking in us. Our level is of Jr KG in front of this giants. For that reason we have to think from our point of view and what is best suitable to us. Anyways nice and eye opening article. Thanks Mr Vishal for sharing it.


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