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From the author of HOW TO THINK and THE PLEASURES OF READING IN AN AGE OF DISTRACTION, a literary guide to engaging with the voices of the past to stay sane in the present W. H. Auden once wrote that “art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.” In his brilliant and compulsively readable new treatise, Breaking Bread with the Dead, Alan Jacobs shows us that engag From the author of HOW TO THINK and THE PLEASURES OF READING IN AN AGE OF DISTRACTION, a literary guide to engaging with the voices of the past to stay sane in the present W. H. Auden once wrote that “art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.” In his brilliant and compulsively readable new treatise, Breaking Bread with the Dead, Alan Jacobs shows us that engaging with the strange and wonderful writings of the past might help us live less anxiously in the present—and increase what Thomas Pynchon once called our “personal density.” Today we are battling too much information in a society changing at lightning speed, with algorithms aimed at shaping our every thought—plus a sense that history offers no resources, only impediments to overcome or ignore. The modern solution to our problems is to surround ourselves only with what we know and what brings us instant comfort. Jacobs’s answer is the opposite: to be in conversation with, and challenged by, those from the past who can tell us what we never thought we needed to know. What can Homer teach us about force? How does Frederick Douglass deal with the massive blind spots of America’s Founding Fathers? And what can we learn from modern authors who engage passionately and profoundly with the past? How can Ursula K. Le Guin show us truths about Virgil’s female characters that Virgil himself could never have seen? In Breaking Bread with the Dead, a gifted scholar draws us into close and sympathetic engagement with texts from across the ages, including the work of Anita Desai, Henrik Ibsen, Jean Rhys, Simone Weil, Edith Wharton, Amitav Ghosh, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Italo Calvino, and many more. By hearing the voices of the past, we can expand our consciousness, our sympathies, and our wisdom far beyond what our present moment can offer.


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From the author of HOW TO THINK and THE PLEASURES OF READING IN AN AGE OF DISTRACTION, a literary guide to engaging with the voices of the past to stay sane in the present W. H. Auden once wrote that “art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.” In his brilliant and compulsively readable new treatise, Breaking Bread with the Dead, Alan Jacobs shows us that engag From the author of HOW TO THINK and THE PLEASURES OF READING IN AN AGE OF DISTRACTION, a literary guide to engaging with the voices of the past to stay sane in the present W. H. Auden once wrote that “art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.” In his brilliant and compulsively readable new treatise, Breaking Bread with the Dead, Alan Jacobs shows us that engaging with the strange and wonderful writings of the past might help us live less anxiously in the present—and increase what Thomas Pynchon once called our “personal density.” Today we are battling too much information in a society changing at lightning speed, with algorithms aimed at shaping our every thought—plus a sense that history offers no resources, only impediments to overcome or ignore. The modern solution to our problems is to surround ourselves only with what we know and what brings us instant comfort. Jacobs’s answer is the opposite: to be in conversation with, and challenged by, those from the past who can tell us what we never thought we needed to know. What can Homer teach us about force? How does Frederick Douglass deal with the massive blind spots of America’s Founding Fathers? And what can we learn from modern authors who engage passionately and profoundly with the past? How can Ursula K. Le Guin show us truths about Virgil’s female characters that Virgil himself could never have seen? In Breaking Bread with the Dead, a gifted scholar draws us into close and sympathetic engagement with texts from across the ages, including the work of Anita Desai, Henrik Ibsen, Jean Rhys, Simone Weil, Edith Wharton, Amitav Ghosh, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Italo Calvino, and many more. By hearing the voices of the past, we can expand our consciousness, our sympathies, and our wisdom far beyond what our present moment can offer.

30 review for Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader's Guide to a More Tranquil Mind

  1. 4 out of 5

    Shelley

    2020 desperately needed Alan Jacobs's Breaking Bread with the Dead. Reading it was a breath of fresh air. If you appreciate old books and feel increasingly dismayed by the fragility of well educated twenty-first century readers who can’t tolerate any views that are out of step with their own “enlightened” sensibilities, sensibilities that couldn’t possibly be wrong, then this book is for you. “There is an increasing sense” Jacobs notes, “not just that the past is sadly in error, is superannuated 2020 desperately needed Alan Jacobs's Breaking Bread with the Dead. Reading it was a breath of fresh air. If you appreciate old books and feel increasingly dismayed by the fragility of well educated twenty-first century readers who can’t tolerate any views that are out of step with their own “enlightened” sensibilities, sensibilities that couldn’t possibly be wrong, then this book is for you. “There is an increasing sense” Jacobs notes, “not just that the past is sadly in error, is superannuated and irrelevant and full of foul ideas that we are well rid of, but that it actually defiles us—its presence makes us unclean.” With a warm and ecumenical tone that seems increasingly rare, Jacobs argues “for an account of the past that emphasizes its treasures more than its threats.” Depending on one’s politics and worldview, it can be tempting to either vilify long-dead authors or romanticize them. Jacobs presents what should be obvious to us: a sensible middle ground where we honestly grapple with old books, celebrating and learning from what is good and true while wrestling with what we humbly believe is wrong. In this way, we develop “personal density”—an antidote to “the feeling of being at a frenetic standstill”—the “twitchiness,” and “low-level anxiety” we feel when we temporarily put down our phones and are therefore “communicatively unstimulated.”* “No one should be defined by the worst thing that they ever did,” argues Jacobs. “We need to look at the whole person.” One of the benefits of bringing this charitable perspective to our study of old books is that we might come to better understand ourselves in our own moment. In one of my favorite chapters of the book, Jacobs holds up Frederick Douglass as an exemplar of this nuanced, charitable, and sometimes costly approach to understanding the past. In his famous Rochester speech, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” Douglass calls the Founders “great men” for “the good they did and the principles they contended for”, while also lamenting “the mournful wail of millions, whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, today rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.” Jacobs then asks his readers to reflect on “what it cost Douglass to speak so warmly of the Founders,” despite “their failure to eradicate slavery at the nation’s founding.” Jacobs marvels at how Douglass “conquered his indignation" and suggests to us that, if Douglass is willing to do so, we can at least try. Breaking Bread with the Dead is a special book that I hope many will read and consider thoughtfully. I’ll close this review by sharing an interesting classroom experiment that Princeton professor Robert P. George likes to conduct with his students. It perfectly illustrates why we must put on humility, charity, and generosity when engaging with the past, if only for the sake of better understanding ourselves. I agree with Jacobs's belief that “you can’t understand the place and time you’re in by immersion. The opposite’s true. You have to step out and away and back and forward. And you have to do it regularly. Then, you come back to the here and now and say, 'Ah! That’s how it is.'" I sometimes ask students what their position on slavery would have been had they been white and living in the South before abolition. Guess what? They all would have been abolitionists! They all would have bravely spoken out against slavery, and worked tirelessly against it. Of course, this is nonsense. Only the tiniest fraction of them, or of any of us, would have spoken up against slavery or lifted a finger to free the slaves. Most of them—and us—would have gone along. Many would have supported the slave system and happily benefited from it. So I respond by saying that I will credit their claims if they can show evidence of the following: that in leading their lives today they have stood up for the rights of unpopular victims of injustice whose very humanity is denied, and where they have done so knowing: 1) that it would make them unpopular with their peers, (2) that they would be loathed and ridiculed by powerful, influential individuals and institutions in our society; (3) that they would be abandoned by many of their friends, (4) that they would be called nasty names, and that they would risk being denied valuable professional opportunities as a result of their moral witness. In short, my challenge is to show where they have at risk to themselves and their futures stood up for a cause that is unpopular in elite sectors of our culture today. That's just brilliant. I would love to sit in on that classroom discussion. *My only criticism of Breaking Bread with the Dead is that the concept of “personal density” and its relationship to the reading old books remains a little opaque in my mind. I think this might be because Jacobs uses an excerpt from a Thomas Pynchon novel to define the term. Pynchon is not exactly a model of clarity! Reading between the lines, I suspect that, with “personal density,” Jacobs is making a similar argument to that found in The Coddling of the American Mind—that young people need exposure to ideas that make them uncomfortable (not “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces”) if they are to develop the stability and resilience required to thrive in this world.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Cameron

    A gentle reminder I actually need to read the books I’ve accumulated.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jeremy

    For Jacobs on "temporal bandwidth," see here (adapted from this book). Related post here. CT review here. The Brazos Fellows colloquium was very good (watch it here). Elizabeth Corey said that Jacobs's book is a defense of liberal arts education, and there is a political vision to the book, including issues of race and sex, in a nonthreatening way. Oakeshott: Poets and other creative folks would be squandering their genius by engaging in traditional politics; traditional politics may protect cult For Jacobs on "temporal bandwidth," see here (adapted from this book). Related post here. CT review here. The Brazos Fellows colloquium was very good (watch it here). Elizabeth Corey said that Jacobs's book is a defense of liberal arts education, and there is a political vision to the book, including issues of race and sex, in a nonthreatening way. Oakeshott: Poets and other creative folks would be squandering their genius by engaging in traditional politics; traditional politics may protect culture to a degree, but poets recreate society itself. Robin Sloan: Social media is an orthographic camera: You see everything, but there's nothing to tell you what's significant. Reading old books helps you to shift from orthographic projection to perspective. Perspective can lead to tranquility. Jacobs doesn't read the news daily; he reads it weekly, using The Economist—it helps one to avoid bad hot takes and the outrage cycle. Burke and Douglass aren't threatening because they're not yelling at you regarding our contemporary moment; nevertheless, they have relevant points to make that can apply to our situation. Jacobs acknowledges that there's some tension between this book and The Pleasures of Reading, because an agenda of reading old books could become like a duty, as opposed to reading at whim. Jacobs: When teaching old authors/works, he focuses on positive selection first (see what's valuable), and then later might address negative selection; that order helps readers take the positive more readily than if they were presented with the negative first. Jacobs wrote this book and How to Think as a citizen. He didn't necessarily write as a Christian, although he certainly thought as a Christian (and he's clear elsewhere in his works). However, the chapter titled "Table Fellowship" includes some underlying theology.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Gideon Yutzy

    Those of us alive in the 21st century often feel obligated to grapple with such a flood of new information and ideas (information triage, as Jacobs calls it), and we often think, who would be bothered to read authors from the past, but we should because they can help bring us perspective and even tranquility. Sadly, according to Jacobs only about 2 percent of the population will be bothered by it, and those are the ones reading his book which may or may not have been his strategy for making his Those of us alive in the 21st century often feel obligated to grapple with such a flood of new information and ideas (information triage, as Jacobs calls it), and we often think, who would be bothered to read authors from the past, but we should because they can help bring us perspective and even tranquility. Sadly, according to Jacobs only about 2 percent of the population will be bothered by it, and those are the ones reading his book which may or may not have been his strategy for making his readers feel smart and special. I will say the book is a good antidote to presentism (a word he keeps using, meaning, as close as I can tell, trying to make sense of life only through the lens of our current events, likes and dislikes, cultural moods, etc.). The past is never completely past but continues to unfold as we live out the present. We should try to stay connected with the past because someday the present (all-important though it may seem to us) will join the river of time and it would be good if we didn't screw things up so badly that the river can't flow properly. Oh, and you will learn all about acquiring personal density and temporal bandwidth. Also, as of this writing, an average of 150,000 people are dying worldwide each day. Not sure how that fits with learning from the past but I just thought I should write it! You're welcome! (Bye.)

  5. 5 out of 5

    Melody Schwarting

    W. H. Auden wrote, "Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead," and thus we have our title. Jacobs here advocates for reading old books, the words of dead people, as a means to greater "personal density," tranquility, and enjoyment of life. Fear not: he also advocates for fanfiction, more on that later. Jacobs refers to theater critic Terry Teachout's idea of the "theater of concurrence," in which playwrights assume audiences share their opinions and write plays that affirm them, gua W. H. Auden wrote, "Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead," and thus we have our title. Jacobs here advocates for reading old books, the words of dead people, as a means to greater "personal density," tranquility, and enjoyment of life. Fear not: he also advocates for fanfiction, more on that later. Jacobs refers to theater critic Terry Teachout's idea of the "theater of concurrence," in which playwrights assume audiences share their opinions and write plays that affirm them, guaranteeing audience's agreement in a circle of confirmation. For me, this was a "book of concurrence." I'm a historian--I traffic in the written remnants of the deceased--and I have always loved old books, for as long as I can remember. Jacobs's acknowledgment that "attention to the past is a hard sell" might be true for some, but it's not a hard sell for me, or even a sell at all, because I've already bought into it. Jacobs quotes and affirms Tony Tost in the first chapter: "younger folks don't have any cultural memory or taste for aesthetic adventure." (16) Excuse me? My whole life contradicts this assertion, making me unable to accept it as a blanket statement. I grew up on the Beach Boys, on Alfred Hitchcock, on Victorian and Edwardian and children's literature. When I was in high school and my brother in college, we had "Audrey Hepburn Tuesdays" one summer, where we ate frozen custard and watched Audrey Hepburn movies on Tuesdays. I do not deny that, perhaps, many of my generation and Gen Z lack this "temporal bandwidth," but I don't think it's quite as awful as Tost claims. Jacobs has a more measured view, since he is a college professor and thus in constant contact with the young'uns, but I still challenge the assertion--even a small assertion--that it's a generational problem. When I got past my considerable cognitive dissonance with much of the first chapter (it was really just the Tost quotation), I settled into Jacobs's methods for and ideas about engaging with the past. He argues for "table fellowship" with writers of the past, even those who do not conform wholly to our modern sensibilities. He has a whole chapter on "The Sins of the Past" and working through Wharton's antismeitism and Shakespeare's horrifyingly abusive Petruchio. Instead of tossing babies out with their bathwater, Jacobs argues, we should read with as much "positive selection" as we do with "negative selection." Instead of just finding things to discard, we should find what we can to admire. "Wisdom lies in discernment," he writes, "and utopianism and nostalgia are ways of abandoning discernment." (58) Heinrich Schliemann, who was quite literally obsessed with ancient Greece, displays for Jacobs an acceptance of "the past without difference," which is not what Jacobs promotes. The past is a different place, perhaps a foreign country, but not one we need to avoid or denigrate, nor one we should accept without criticism. What we must look for, then, is "the authentic kernel," a phrase coming from feminist scholar Patrocinio Schweickart, who seeks the medium between the extremes of "canceling" patriarchal works or assuming their points of view. The "utopian moment," the "authentic kernel," instead, is what we should pursue. That "moment when something deeply and beautifully human emerges from that swamp of patriarchal ideology," as Jacobs puts it, defining the "'authentic kernel' [as] something perhaps hidden deep inside the book that speaks to you, that articulates an experience you can share." (82) This is when the book began deeply resonating with me--my utopian moment, if you will. As a historian, I regularly face texts and figures who do things that seem unconscionable to me, like enslave others or persecute people with contrary opinions. But I can't deny those people their humanity, and have often been at a loss to define precisely why I accept and love their work even in its problematic moments. Here, Jacobs turns to fanfiction: "Sometimes when a story both entrances and offends you, you'd love to alter it or add to it in ways that redress its imbalances. If you're a writer, you can do this. This is, importantly I think, one of the chief prompts for fan fiction, which, despite its name, doesn't just celebrate the works it draws on: sometimes it extends, sometimes it even corrects them." (82-83) He points to Ursula K. Le Guin's Lavinia, inspired by Virgil's Aeneid, and Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, inspired by Jane Eyre. "What drove Le Guin and Rhys to write their powerful novels was not merely frustration, but rather frustration mixed with admiration and even love. The Aeneid and Jane Eyre are truly great works of literary art--that is what makes them worth responding to. (85) When it comes to fan fiction being Literature™, I can only think of one thing... ...and also more recent popular works like Circe by Madeline Miller, and March by Geraldine Brooks. That chapter, with the following two, are worth the price of the book alone. Jacobs considers Peter Abrahams, a mixed-race young man in South Africa who profoundly loved Keats and W. E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois gave words to Abrahams' bone-deep knowledge that he was not free in his contemporary society. Yet Keats and others "were, for me, more alive than the most vitally living." (95) This tension Jacobs also explores in Frederick Douglass, particularly with respect to his view on the American founders in "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro." (1852) I found this section compelling, because I heard this speech quoted everywhere over the summer, without the appreciation Douglass displayed for the founders, though he could not accept Independence Day for himself, being a Black man. Douglass says, "With them, justice, liberty and humanity were 'final;' not slavery and oppression...You may well cherish the memory of such men. They were great in their day and generation." (114-115) Earlier, Jacobs writes that the founders "rarely understood the full implications of their best ideas." (51-52) Returning to the present for a moment, I think of--what else?--Hamilton. Surely, George Washington would cringe at being played by Christopher Jackson, when Washington himself went to inconvenient lengths to keep Black people in his enslavement. Thomas Jefferson would likely not appreciate being played by Daveed Diggs and his rapping expertise. But could either of them deny the heady freedom of experimenting with the United States, "young, scrappy, and hungry," is adapted incredibly well in this musical? Methinks not. As a side note, this book is a powerful antidote to cancel culture. I find cancel culture harmful in many ways--no one is exempt; the whim of the masses overcomes any reasoned, prolonged discussion; canceling a person is also known as murder, assassination, and execution, all of which are ethically horrifying. Jacobs's argument is that we can take the good with the bad, not accepting or bowing to the bad, but reading generously, simply accepting that people of the past are human as we are today. If cancel culture stopped at taking away the social media/public figure privileges of people who need to learn the virtues of silence, I'd be fully behind it (I have a list). But when it comes to canceling someone, their work, and everyone connected with them, I draw the line. J. K. Rowling stands out to me as a contemporary writer who does not live up to her own best ideas. Yet, her failure does not impeach her ideas; you could say she trained her cancelers herself. I thank Jacobs wholeheartedly for giving me the words to deal with this, to handle historical texts in all their paradoxes, and to live with complex figures from the past in a way both generous and critical. I'd highly recommend this to anyone who's struggled with reading old books, or who wants to read more old books, or who finds it challenging to explain to others why reading old books is valuable. This would make a great text for the classroom (upper high school and above). "You don't silence the part of you that sees the problems with the book, its errors, its moral malformations; neither do you silence the part of you that responds so warmly to that 'utopian moment.'" (82) [to the book] "You gave me many sweet months when, as people told me breathlessly of the latest astonishing video or the latest appalling tweet, I could say, I'm sorry, I know nothing about all that, for I have been thinking of old books, and to that work I must return." (159)

  6. 5 out of 5

    Matt Pitts

    If you've ever wished C. S. Lewis's introduction to On the Incarnation had been a book instead of an essay, here your wish is fulfilled in one of Lewis's foremost disciples. But Jacobs is no mere placeholder for Lewis. No doubt Jacobs says things Lewis would not. But he thinks like Lewis. And perhaps if Lewis were our contemporary he would say something like what Alan Jacobs says here. I loved it.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Stephen Hicks

    This book is a balm to the frenetic pace of 2020. The relation between “temporal bandwidth” and “personal density” provides much needed language for our informational predicament. The book ends simply with, “...as people told me breathlessly of the latest astonishing video or the latest appalling tweet, I could say, I’m sorry, I know nothing about all that, for I have been thinking of old books, and to that work I must return.” A short, gentle read that heartens the weary lover of books.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Ivan

    A good antidote to presentism and prescription for a “more tranquil mind.”

  9. 5 out of 5

    Paul Womack

    I so appreciate and learn from Mr. Jacobs. This volume offers me books to read and ideas to explore. That ancient souls lived the human condition with its mix of ignorance and wisdom, and that more recent souls did the same, and that contemorary souls do the same is a great lesson from this book. There is much common sense in this small volume, and a host of insightful observations. I wish it had been longer.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca

    Timely, thought provoking, and saying similar things to what I've been thinking about a lot these past few years. Where he uses phrases like personal density, mental bandwidth, and the big here and the long now, I'd say read for diversity of thought and opinion. Hold every thought captive. Ask the hard questions. Wrestle with the uncomfortable ideas and content. Leave the chronological snobbery at the door. And most importantly, read with grace.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Samuel Parkison

    Very good. Jacobs offers here a potent apologetic for reading old books. He advocates neither for canceling the dead, nor white washing them, but rather for learning from them, and negotiating with them. There is much humility and wisdom to the vision of the tranquil life described by Jacobs here.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Kevin

    Another wonderful book by Alan Jacobs that is food for the soul. In his typical, learned, humble and artful way he guides the reader toward a more tranquil mind in a society that seems designed to create anything but. He explores the tensions involved in interacting with the past; neither throwing away our values and judgement nor refusing to engage because of our obsession with the present reality. Along the way you will find wisdom from a wide variety of sources and perspective both literary a Another wonderful book by Alan Jacobs that is food for the soul. In his typical, learned, humble and artful way he guides the reader toward a more tranquil mind in a society that seems designed to create anything but. He explores the tensions involved in interacting with the past; neither throwing away our values and judgement nor refusing to engage because of our obsession with the present reality. Along the way you will find wisdom from a wide variety of sources and perspective both literary and historical; fiction and non. This is a self-help book that doesn’t offer easy answers and listicles but forces us to do the hard work necessary to grow and thrive; to become a better version of ourselves.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    This book is superb. I will be returning to this again and again for its sanity and wisdom. I love that Jacobs demonstrates in this book what he recommends, which is to draw on dead authors to recommend reading dead authors. This is the kind of book that stays in my brain and pops into conversations I have throughout the day, either in my head or spoken aloud. It applies to so many conversations. It felt prescient to start it right before and finish it during election week, a good way to stay gr This book is superb. I will be returning to this again and again for its sanity and wisdom. I love that Jacobs demonstrates in this book what he recommends, which is to draw on dead authors to recommend reading dead authors. This is the kind of book that stays in my brain and pops into conversations I have throughout the day, either in my head or spoken aloud. It applies to so many conversations. It felt prescient to start it right before and finish it during election week, a good way to stay grounded. I should say that I agree implicitly with the premise of this book--that reading books by dead authors is valuable (for reasons laid out in the book). However, I was interested to see what kind of arguments Jacobs uses to support his premise. In Chapter 5, called The Authentic Kernel, I could see his argument taking clear shape. At the start of the chapter he quotes from an essay of literary criticism that forwards the idea of reading old books in a double fashion. You don't put aside what you find troubling in a novel, but you also hold onto the "authentic kernel" in the novel, what is human and moving and relatable. Holding the tension of these two things is part of developing generosity towards the author and his or humanity while also learning humility ourselves since we have our own blind spots. Jacobs gives the example of two authors who have written stories from the point of view of women in classic literature who were not given a voice (Lavinia in the Aeneid and Bertha in Jane Eyre). Perhaps we can do this as readers, too, by simply asking questions of silent characters: What might this character's perspective have been? and using our imaginative capacity to think outside the narrative. Heaven knows we need that practice in our living, breathing daily lives. It makes so much sense that these things would help increase our personal density and decrease our presentism (lack of perspective). It's an exercise in virtue: in patience, in prudence, in courage, in hope. I also like, in this chapter, that Jacobs recapitulates his theme of opposition. That opposition can actually be something healthy and scouring. We don't oppose what we're indifferent to, so when we feel opposition to a book, don't let go! Hang on to it, like Jacob wrestling with the angel in Genesis...the wrestling itself led to a blessing. Maybe we do more harm when we dismiss something that troubles us instead of exploring why it does, and even what good may be lurking beneath the offensive. In the chapter The Boy in the Library, Jacobs quotes a writer who has a tattoo on her arm of a Latin phrase, translated “I am human, and nothing human is alien to me.” The writer calls this a statement with a lot of “internal tension”. Love that phrase! Here’s the wonderful way Jacobs follows up with that: “I often quote this Latin phrase. When I do, I always point out that Terence [the original author of the phrase] does not say that everything human is instantly accessible to him. He says it is not alien, not wholly outside the scope of his experience, not opaque to his inquiries. It puts up resistance. But that resistance, and the work we do to overcome it, are alike necessary to the task of breaking bread with the dead.” (102) Love that! Chapter 7 is a heavy hitter, too. I like this quote: “[Douglass offers] a model of reckoning with the past, to sift, to assess, to return and reflect again.” (117).

  14. 4 out of 5

    Brianna Bratrud

    A review by Jessica Hooten Wilson - https://formajournal.substack.com/p/g... A review by Jessica Hooten Wilson - https://formajournal.substack.com/p/g...

  15. 4 out of 5

    Gretchen

    I heard the author, Alan Jacobs, interviewed by Sarah MacKenzie on the Read Aloud Revival podcast. I was familiar with his previous work, but had never read one of his books. I went to the book store on the same day, purchased the book and have been glued to it since. I learned so much. I gained perspective. I have better words to communicate the thoughts that I had until now been unable to voice.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Ann Otto

    Jacobs writes in Envoi, his book's closing comment: "You gave me many sweet months when, as people told me breathlessly of the latest astonishing video or the latest appalling tweet, I could say, I'm sorry, I know nothing about all that, for I have been thinking of old books..." I also turn to reading all genres in difficult times, but especially history and historical novels. Jacobs reminds us that humans have always wanted tranquil minds. He includes a passage from Horace who advised two thousa Jacobs writes in Envoi, his book's closing comment: "You gave me many sweet months when, as people told me breathlessly of the latest astonishing video or the latest appalling tweet, I could say, I'm sorry, I know nothing about all that, for I have been thinking of old books..." I also turn to reading all genres in difficult times, but especially history and historical novels. Jacobs reminds us that humans have always wanted tranquil minds. He includes a passage from Horace who advised two thousand years ago to "Interrogate the writings of the wise." The passage that Jacobs includes contains a line that resonates with me, "Will it be hope and fear about trivial things, in anxious alteration in your mind?" Anxiety is but one thing that stands in the way of tranquility. What, Horace asks, is the way to become a friend to yourself? The book is full of examples of ancients and more recent authors who have tried to answer these questions and Jacobs reminds us that in this, "Another human being from another world has spoken top us." L. P. Hartley's novel stated, "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." Faulkner countered, "The past is never dead; it's not even past." This work gives us much to contemplate in these times. To the thinking of old books, I'll now return.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Kaley

    Jacobs has a generous and nuanced tone, and I appreciate his equal concern for dialogue with ages past and involvement in the present moment for the sake of the future. "To say, 'This text offends me, I will read no further' may be shortsighted; but to read a 'great book' from the past with such reverence that you can't see where it's views are wrong, or even where they differ from your own, is no better" (Ch. 4 "The Past without difference") "...the power of reading arises in some cases from like Jacobs has a generous and nuanced tone, and I appreciate his equal concern for dialogue with ages past and involvement in the present moment for the sake of the future. "To say, 'This text offends me, I will read no further' may be shortsighted; but to read a 'great book' from the past with such reverence that you can't see where it's views are wrong, or even where they differ from your own, is no better" (Ch. 4 "The Past without difference") "...the power of reading arises in some cases from likeness-from the sense that that could be me speaking-and from difference-that is someone very different from me speaking. For mental and moral health we need both." (Ch. 6, The Boy in the Library)

  18. 4 out of 5

    Sam Strickland

    This is a book, it seems to me, that only someone like Alan Jacobs could write. It is generous and humane with a practical insistence on the importance of very impractical, indeed highly idiosyncratic, things. I found it enjoyable and bracing in the midst of a strange and frenzied year on the national scale.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Michelle

    “Breaking bread with the dead is not a scholarly task to be completed but a permanent banquet, to which all who hunger are invited.”

  20. 5 out of 5

    Luke Newcomb

    An immensely satisfying, beautifully written book on the pleasures and benefits of reading old books.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Jordan

    An essential read that argues for the value of reading and struggling with old books, and how that effort makes us better and our lives more meaningful. Without question a must read.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Jeff Zell

    Alan Jacobs has blessed us with an intellectual self-help book. The problem that he addresses is an inability of many in our culture to negotiate with ideas and statements and personalities that are different than our own. He is concerned that we are not engaging people whom we consider different from us. We are cutting people and their ideas off through the use of labels (conservative, liberal, racist, etc.) or emotional outrage or violence. One way to learn how to grapple with and grow from id Alan Jacobs has blessed us with an intellectual self-help book. The problem that he addresses is an inability of many in our culture to negotiate with ideas and statements and personalities that are different than our own. He is concerned that we are not engaging people whom we consider different from us. We are cutting people and their ideas off through the use of labels (conservative, liberal, racist, etc.) or emotional outrage or violence. One way to learn how to grapple with and grow from ideas and statements we disagree with is by reading the works of people who are long since dead. The dead, after all, are dead, and they cannot keep arguing with us. When we enter their works, we have to come to terms with cultural and philosophical assumptions that may be very different than our own. Or, we read people who have ideas that are familiar to us, but the originators of those ideas did not live out the fullest expression of those ideas. Unlike current issues, when we are weary of continuing this conversation with the dead we can simply close the book until we decide we are ready to try some more. In these pages, Jacobs argues convincingly that by reading the works of the dead, we can develop what he calls personal density and temporal bandwidth. Personal density means that we have an ability to negotiate with ideas and statements very different than our own rather than simply dismiss them. Temporal bandwidth means that we have a deeper understanding of the past and the future. Jacobs offers a number of examples of people who do this well. My favorite is Frederick Douglass. In a speech that Douglass gave on July 4, 1852, (The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro) he wrestled with the Founder’s idea that all men are created equal, yet at the same time, he experienced the horror of slavery. Jacobs shows that Douglass had tremendous personal density and temporal bandwidth as he negotiates with ideas of the past as it applied to his life experience. He values what was good in the Founders, while at the same time, expressing substantial criticism about their failures. And, he looks forward to when the ideas of equality are fully lived in the future. When we grapple with ideas, statements, and personalities that are different than our own, we do not need to lay aside our own principles and convictions. We strive to have the maturity to allow what we hold dear to be challenged by what others hold dear. At the heart of Jacobs’ argument is the need to read. Jacobs argues we need to read works that challenge us and lead us into deeper conversation. We need to examine and be examined. When we are successful with the dead, then we are better prepared to engage with the present and the living. A small and brief book that leads the reader into a great and necessary conversation.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Tuba Aisha

    This book was not at all what I expected it to be and I say that as a good thing! Breaking bread with the dead is a book for those of us who are trying to pace ourselves and make sense of the information overload that comes with living in a deeply connected world of social media. If you have ever wondered whether you should read classic novels and works of people long gone, people whose views don't always align with your views, then this is the book for you. Alan Jacob tells the readers about This book was not at all what I expected it to be and I say that as a good thing! Breaking bread with the dead is a book for those of us who are trying to pace ourselves and make sense of the information overload that comes with living in a deeply connected world of social media. If you have ever wondered whether you should read classic novels and works of people long gone, people whose views don't always align with your views, then this is the book for you. Alan Jacob tells the readers about a balance, a delicate line that has to be drawn between today's readers and past work of writers that may have held views that were sexist, racist or non-inclusive of ideologies that seem so important and necessary to us today. He argues that the past has brought us to where we are today, it has helped shape us for better and for worse and dismissing those efforts can lead to more confusion than peace of mind. I personally loved the part on positive and negative selection. Negative selection is the idea that our minds actively try to find ways to point out the wrong attributes in someone, it's easier for us to cancel someone than it is to see the good in them. I do think that mentally it is easier for us to hold onto the wrong people do and close that chapter entirely and it surely does take more mental and emotional effort to find good aspects of people, to acknowledge the positivity instead of pointing out the negative. This book tells readers to find ways to look for the positive even when we don't want to. This book definitely makes you think, it makes you uncomfortable and it made me question myself a lot. I am not sure how open I am to the idea of acknowledging the work of people who may have been truly bad human beings. If a classical writer was a slave owner or a paedophile, for instance, I would find it extremely difficult to read through their work. I could make exceptions because I do understand that we are only as progressive as the world around us and we all have attributes that we might not be proud of but it is not a black and white scenario. At times, I also found it hard to keep up with the text because it felt more like academic reading than your generic, everyday fiction novel. I think the concept was important but I also believe that important concepts should be explained in ways that every kind of reader can understand. That is if your goal is to get the point across to all kinds of readers.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Jlnpeacock Peacock

    To explore books from previous generations has long been a joy to me as it allows one to soak up an atmosphere of another time, another culture, and to view the progress of God's story throughout time. One is invited in to other people's perspectives and to live in the moment with them. In reading these stories one can easily see that things have not changed. Man's cruelty, greed, lusts, perversions, and any of the other sins one cares to add, have not changed. Often new names are given, but the To explore books from previous generations has long been a joy to me as it allows one to soak up an atmosphere of another time, another culture, and to view the progress of God's story throughout time. One is invited in to other people's perspectives and to live in the moment with them. In reading these stories one can easily see that things have not changed. Man's cruelty, greed, lusts, perversions, and any of the other sins one cares to add, have not changed. Often new names are given, but the sins remain the same. Can we learn from the past? Have we progressed beyond their sins? Yes, we can learn from the past and from pagans since God provides common grace. In so doing, great works of art and literature, by pagans, have been created and enjoyed by Christians because God has given them wisdom in certain areas. But in all reading, a Christian must bring a Christian world view with the absolutes in scripture to test what is being read as to its value. As far as progressing, I would say that I see great advancements at times throughout history when the Christian view was the dominating factor in the society. An explosion of the arts, science, and literature occurred after the Reformation. Mr. Jacobs' book was a disappointment as he writes in an arrogant manner with a view of societal evolution. He also writes as if he had not read widely, which I know he has. He labours on about the besetting sin of slavery in America as if this is a tragedy unequaled. I wonder that he does not remember the British parliamentarian who wrote of the Irish in the 1850's. The gentleman was preparing a report for parliament and said, 'Viewing the Irish woman with her child one would almost suspect her of having maternal feelings.' The Irish were considered a sub-human set by the English. And so we see that any minority at any time is viewed as the Irish or the American slave. As Christians, any of the sins of society should be addressed and efforts should be made to correct the situation to bring the culture into keeping with God's perfect plan. Mr. Jacobs did not present a strong argument for the joy of feasting with the older authors. This is a deplorable situation. There is such richness and beauty in the works of our ancients. Please! Come and join them in the banquet. You don't have to agree with them, but some times the sheer beauty of their prose makes the effort profitable to your very soul.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan

    I should begin by saying that I was already predisposed to like this book: I read the author's blog, and I'm sympathetic to the idea of reading old books. The title is derived from W.H. Auden, who wrote that "art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead." Here, Jacobs advocates the reading of old books to increase "personal density" and "temporal bandwidth." The constant stream of things demanding our attention is unrelenting, and without "personal density," it's easy to get swept away I should begin by saying that I was already predisposed to like this book: I read the author's blog, and I'm sympathetic to the idea of reading old books. The title is derived from W.H. Auden, who wrote that "art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead." Here, Jacobs advocates the reading of old books to increase "personal density" and "temporal bandwidth." The constant stream of things demanding our attention is unrelenting, and without "personal density," it's easy to get swept away in the rush. (The images of Psalm 1--"a tree planted by streams of water" vs. "chaff that the wind blows away"--kept coming to me as I considered the idea of personal density.) If all we have is the lens of the now, it's easy to lose our minds over each new controversy (and just as quickly move on when a new one supplants it in our attention). Jacobs covers a lot of ground, introduces several helpful tools of thought (as in How to Think), and is characteristically generous and charitable to the subjects he covers. "A tranquil mind" is certainly a desirable destination in these dark times, and I think Jacobs provides one good road map to get there.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Daniel

    Jacobs explains how valuing historical perspectives found in the literature of the ages broadens one's own understanding. He deals with some hangups to this idea and some case studies of when this has worked. Of course it's prettier than that and he's a thoughtful writer but that's what he's up to. At times this book felt like a barrage of quotations from literary source X with oh hey also some commentary. I suppose that's the professor-essay approach, but I didn't always feel in sync with his tr Jacobs explains how valuing historical perspectives found in the literature of the ages broadens one's own understanding. He deals with some hangups to this idea and some case studies of when this has worked. Of course it's prettier than that and he's a thoughtful writer but that's what he's up to. At times this book felt like a barrage of quotations from literary source X with oh hey also some commentary. I suppose that's the professor-essay approach, but I didn't always feel in sync with his train of thought. It's a freeform approach like what one might hear in a lecture. Hey if he's grooving and I'm not catching the beat is he really the problem here? I think Jacobs accomplishes the task he undertakes, but to me the idea that one's knowledge and even wisdom is broadened by reading widely and historically seems easy to accept. I want to fault this book for having a point that is too obvious, but I may have just been blown over by the gentlest of breezes. This book gives reasons to pick up the shovel and start digging into old weird books.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Nicole-Rose

    Breaking Bread with the Dead is one of those books that I really needed, but wasn't exactly sure how to ask for. Jacobs touches on several topics about the importance of reading classics to the importance of embracing history despite the unsavory views that have been held both by historical figures and fictional heroes alike. I always loathed the idea that novels depicting outdated and inhumane views should be tossed and ignored because they accurately illustrated an age that didn't have the sam Breaking Bread with the Dead is one of those books that I really needed, but wasn't exactly sure how to ask for. Jacobs touches on several topics about the importance of reading classics to the importance of embracing history despite the unsavory views that have been held both by historical figures and fictional heroes alike. I always loathed the idea that novels depicting outdated and inhumane views should be tossed and ignored because they accurately illustrated an age that didn't have the same sensitivities that we pride ourselves on today. Jacobs does a wonderful job at addressing this issue and why it's important to use these texts to reflect, not only how far we've come, but on what future generations might view as outdated when they read texts published during our time. There's no better way to learn about the past than indulging in the books they chose to ban.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Bridget

    Comforting I loved this book and will definitely reread. The message I get from it is as life evolves, opinions and understanding do also. In order to truly understand another's perspective, we have to truly understand their world as it is for them, what they experience while it is happening. With all the revisionism and "got-you" we currently are enduring, this encourages us to see the world through all possibilities and maybe even be open to listening and receiving the message of someone with a Comforting I loved this book and will definitely reread. The message I get from it is as life evolves, opinions and understanding do also. In order to truly understand another's perspective, we have to truly understand their world as it is for them, what they experience while it is happening. With all the revisionism and "got-you" we currently are enduring, this encourages us to see the world through all possibilities and maybe even be open to listening and receiving the message of someone with a different opinion, rather than just shutting them down. A very timely book.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Luke Mackinnon

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. Jacobs’s book is a breath of fresh air in the stuffiness of this “cancel culture.” Appropriate dignity and discussion are rightfully gifted to the authors of old. Their words are not dead documents of irrelevance composed of mere ink on paper. Rather, the authors’ words have a beating pulse that we can hear today — like Tell-Tale Hearts. We must display the courage and courtesy to pull up the floor boards of “presentism” to find the hidden works of the pulsing past. I am proud to have been a stu Jacobs’s book is a breath of fresh air in the stuffiness of this “cancel culture.” Appropriate dignity and discussion are rightfully gifted to the authors of old. Their words are not dead documents of irrelevance composed of mere ink on paper. Rather, the authors’ words have a beating pulse that we can hear today — like Tell-Tale Hearts. We must display the courage and courtesy to pull up the floor boards of “presentism” to find the hidden works of the pulsing past. I am proud to have been a student of Professor Jacobs at Baylor University.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Matthew Hinman

    What can I say about Alan Jacobs' latest book? If I judge a book by the passages underlined, or volume of notes I mark in its margins, or thoughts jotted in my notebook, I find much to commend here. Jacobs' books always find a way to fill my pages and linger with me long after I've set the book down. Borrowing one of the analogies from this book's beginning, I expect its lessons to be revisited and re-savored in "the winding staircase" of my mind for a long time to come. 5 stars.

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