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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

    Jeremy

    For Jacobs on "temporal bandwidth," see here (adapted from this book). Related post here. CT review here. Interview here (might be more about 1943). 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 poli For Jacobs on "temporal bandwidth," see here (adapted from this book). Related post here. CT review here. Interview here (might be more about 1943). 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.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Cameron

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

  4. 4 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.

  5. 4 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.)

  6. 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)

  7. 4 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. 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.

  8. 4 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. 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.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Ivan

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

  10. 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).

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jacob Vahle

    This little book is yet another thought provoking read from Alan Jacobs, who I just missed the chance of having as a professor at Wheaton. The book’s central premise continues to challenge me to “love the dead as neighbor” by breaking bread with them, consuming works that are strange to me and asking why they are strange, and accumulating conversation partners across space and time. He exposes the dangers of “presentism” without becoming enameled with nostalgia. All in all, he offers up a way to This little book is yet another thought provoking read from Alan Jacobs, who I just missed the chance of having as a professor at Wheaton. The book’s central premise continues to challenge me to “love the dead as neighbor” by breaking bread with them, consuming works that are strange to me and asking why they are strange, and accumulating conversation partners across space and time. He exposes the dangers of “presentism” without becoming enameled with nostalgia. All in all, he offers up a way to find the “authentic kernel” in any book we read as long as we enter into the conversation generously.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Kayleigh

    4 stars. “Like the poet Yeats, I often find that thought, and indeed life as a whole, is like a winding stair: you keep revisiting the same points, the same themes, but at higher levels of experience. From those ascending vantage points a given idea, a given feeling, a given perception, is recognizably itself and yet somehow different.” I’m not going to review this one, I’m just trying to add the books I’ve read the last few days for my Goodreads reading challenge.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Renee

    Excellent book for those who said they can't read certain book because they don't agree with the author or what the author belive or from books written at a time when what was politically correct may differ from our time. So much can be learned by reading something we may disagree with, to read different opinion or point of view and it help us to stand firmer on our values etc. Well written and with humor, highly recommend Excellent book for those who said they can't read certain book because they don't agree with the author or what the author belive or from books written at a time when what was politically correct may differ from our time. So much can be learned by reading something we may disagree with, to read different opinion or point of view and it help us to stand firmer on our values etc. Well written and with humor, highly recommend

  16. 4 out of 5

    Wagner Floriani

    I really wasn’t that intrigued at first. Compared to “How to Think” this book feels like it will be a first chapter and close kind of read. About 4 chapters in, I was captivated by Jacob’s balanced reasoning again. This really is a book about how to learn something you think isn’t worth your time. And he masterfully convinced me to read old books for the sake current discussion. And Jacobs is the writer version of the Dos X beer guy.

  17. 5 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.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance

    "Why read?" "Why read old books?" "How do you live a good and tranquil life?" All of these are questions I often think about. Alan Jacobs also considers those questions, and the result of his thinking is Breaking Bread with the Dead. Alan Jacobs starts by looking at the storms (I'd call them Category 5 hurricanes) that blow around us in contemporary life by means of the onslaught of news and social media. To survive, to stand, to move ahead amid the storms requires, he tells us, "personal density, "Why read?" "Why read old books?" "How do you live a good and tranquil life?" All of these are questions I often think about. Alan Jacobs also considers those questions, and the result of his thinking is Breaking Bread with the Dead. Alan Jacobs starts by looking at the storms (I'd call them Category 5 hurricanes) that blow around us in contemporary life by means of the onslaught of news and social media. To survive, to stand, to move ahead amid the storms requires, he tells us, "personal density," a term that comes from one of the characters in Thomas Pynchon's book, Gravity's Rainbow. Jacob writes, "...the development of personal density, to which reading old books can be a vital contribution...might provide...a port, for however brief a time, in the storm." How to achieve this personal density? We tend, according to Jacobs, to spend time with others like us. "But I believe," Jacob tells us, "that any significant increase in personal density is largely achieved through encounters with un-likeness." Jacobs reminds us that the French thinker Simone Weil that looking for eternal truth can be difficult to do when we deal with our actual neighbor because emotions tend to be close to the surface. Books, on the other hand, offer some emotional distance. One of my favorite parts of this book is where Jacobs shares some thoughts from Italian novelist Italo Calvino about reading old books. "Your classic author is the one you cannot feel indifferent to, who helps you to define yourself in relation to him, even in dispute with him." Jacobs goes on to share a little more Calvino: "A classic is something that tends to relegate the concerns of the moment to the status of background noise, but at the same time this background noise is something we cannot do without." During the process of encountering a book from the past, "When we perceive some sudden dissonance between ourselves and those people, we should not run from that dissonance but straight toward it,"Jacob asserts. Further he adds, "This testing of our responses against those of our ancestors is an exciting endeavor---a potentially endless table conversation, though, again, one we can suspend at any time." I loved this marvelous conclusion by Jacobs, where he talks about deeply meeting with people from the past: "When we own our kinship to those people, they may come alive for us not just as exemplars of narrowness and wickedness that we have overcome, but as neighbors and even as teachers. When we acknowledge that even when they go far astray they do so in ways that we surely would have, had we been formed as they were, we extend them not just attention but love, the very love that we hope our descendants will extend to us." Author Alan Jacobs is interviewed at The Trinity Forum here.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Jess Dollar

    Jacobs’ books are such a relief. They remind me what it feels like to concentrate, to think, the ponder, to contemplate.

  20. 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...

  21. 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.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Susan Tunis

    What I really need right now IS a reader's guide to a tranquil mind, because my mind is anything but tranquil at the moment. Alas, this book is far too intellectual for my current head space. Probably, if I achieved tranquility, I would love this, but right now I simply don't have the bandwidth. What I really need right now IS a reader's guide to a tranquil mind, because my mind is anything but tranquil at the moment. Alas, this book is far too intellectual for my current head space. Probably, if I achieved tranquility, I would love this, but right now I simply don't have the bandwidth.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Shane Saxon

    Alan, my best friend that I’ve never met, does it again.

  24. 5 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.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Jenny

    Just finished Alan Jacob’s 2020 book Breaking Bread with the Dead, an extended essay that argues for a need to develop temporal/personal “thickness” through a relationship with old books in order to withstand the banality of contemporary media saturation. While I don’t agree with everything Jacobs writes (here he closes off the possibility for speculative, future oriented fiction to also expand (thicken) a person’s sense of self because it’s being written in the present moment; I disagree, in pa Just finished Alan Jacob’s 2020 book Breaking Bread with the Dead, an extended essay that argues for a need to develop temporal/personal “thickness” through a relationship with old books in order to withstand the banality of contemporary media saturation. While I don’t agree with everything Jacobs writes (here he closes off the possibility for speculative, future oriented fiction to also expand (thicken) a person’s sense of self because it’s being written in the present moment; I disagree, in part because I want to maintain the possibility for the prophetic mode and a certain temporal slipperiness within), I did find the book enjoyable, thoughtful, and worth thinking through in terms of performative theology / scriptural theology. The idea that past texts can reveal both differences and similarities between a author and reader is nothing new, but there’s an underlying sacramental tone to the way Jacobs articulates it throughout this project. In particular, his emphasis on texts as producing a sense of kinship could be effectively used in theological work from a Mormon perspective.

  26. 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)

  27. 4 out of 5

    Devon Bowman

    This little book reminds us that sometimes the books of the past can speak more to the present than anything we scroll on. In this age we have a tendency to look disdainfully at the figures and writings of the past because of our “moral superiority.” Jacobs writes plainly that if we refuse to interact because of that we are missing out on what can make us deeper people. The ignoring of old books is not an act of justice for their moral hang ups but is a handicap to the one who doesn’t explore th This little book reminds us that sometimes the books of the past can speak more to the present than anything we scroll on. In this age we have a tendency to look disdainfully at the figures and writings of the past because of our “moral superiority.” Jacobs writes plainly that if we refuse to interact because of that we are missing out on what can make us deeper people. The ignoring of old books is not an act of justice for their moral hang ups but is a handicap to the one who doesn’t explore their depth and knowledge.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Philip Hazelip

    This is some text to chew on. It addresses a critical and relevant topic, especially in light of cancel culture. However, it does not seek to ignore or even belittle the injustices of the past, rather it presents a unique challenge to wrestle with the writings that precede us. Avoiding both the idealization and demonization of the past, the charge is to travel to the context of our ancestors and ‘break bread with the dead.’ Ideally, we will be challenged, maybe even offended, so that we can add This is some text to chew on. It addresses a critical and relevant topic, especially in light of cancel culture. However, it does not seek to ignore or even belittle the injustices of the past, rather it presents a unique challenge to wrestle with the writings that precede us. Avoiding both the idealization and demonization of the past, the charge is to travel to the context of our ancestors and ‘break bread with the dead.’ Ideally, we will be challenged, maybe even offended, so that we can add to (not merely affirm) our understanding of history and the present.

  29. 5 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.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Margaret

    This book is intellectual, but accessible. It speaks to what is happening in our times while encouraging us to connect to the past. I think it will affect my reading patterns for the rest of my life, or as long as I have the strength, eyesight. My mind is definitely more tranquil as I think about how the past reaches out to us through books. I spent nearly a month actually reading this short little book because I had to battle with lots of competing things and I had to ponder a lot.

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