“At a time when many Americans . . . are engaged in deep reflection about the meaning of the nation's history [this] is an exceptionally useful companion for those who want to do so with honesty and integrity.” —Shelf Awareness
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.
In exploring how texts from the past can inform one's understanding of the present, Jacobs (How to Think), a humanities professor at Baylor University, tackles a promising subject matter with uneven results. Believing that wider perspectives are needed than those provided by today's world of "informational overload," he urges a productive engagement with figures and texts from the past and, in particular, "learning to know them in their difference from, as well as their likeness to, us." Jacobs presents an intriguing cast of people who did this, from Simone Weil to Frederick Douglass; in one of the book's highlights, he delves into Douglass's famous July 4th oration on why the founding fathers, though flawed by their failure to eradicate slavery, were "great in their day and generation." Jacobs's ideas sometimes feel rehashed rather than enlarged from chapter to chapter, and his language unnecessarily academic rather than simply stating that a different perspective will make a person more well-rounded, for instance, he writes that a wider "temporal bandwidth" will lead to greater "personal density" (two terms taken from Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow). Nevertheless, the ideas are stimulating, and his somewhat unsatisfactory book will still give thoughtful readers a jumping-off point for further reflection.