Good Readers Make Good Neighbors

Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader's Guide to a More Tranquil Mind | Alan Jacobs | Penguin Press

For those of us who may naturally insert the word paideia into conversation without defining it, Alan Jacobs’s Breaking Bread with the Dead (out this week from Penguin Press) is a delightful affirmation of those truths that we have found self-evident. We do not need to be convinced to love old things, for we see ourselves as part of a story that began before us and will continue after us. However, much of the rest of our troubled world insists on chronological snobbery as its given lens. People protest against reading dead writers because we know so much more now than those writers did. “Precisely,” answered T.S. Eliot, “and they are what we know.” By the 1950s, chronological snobbery, as C.S. Lewis defines it, was already very much en vogue. Lewis describes the fallacy as “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate of our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” Our condition has worsened in this age as technology has increased our desire for the immediate present, as news that is five minutes old is considered the past. 

Jacobs begins his much-needed apology for old books by quoting Horace the Roman poet who questions in his Epistles, “What brings tranquility? What makes you care less?” This ancient poet felt harassed by trivial things that tormented his attention. His solution was to “interrogate the writings of the wise” for answers “to tell you how you can/ Get through your life in a peaceable tranquil way.” While our culture celebrates mindfulness and pseudo-contemplation, our habits on social media orient us towards constant change and choice—and thus, anxiety. The concerns of Horace appear more pressing in this “age of distraction,” to use a phrase from another of Jacobs’ books. “How do we reckon,” Jacobs writes, “with the experience of now?” 

To escape the overwhelming “presentism” of our culture, we need a more expansive vision, one gained from the past. Reading old books grants us greater “temporal bandwidth,” the substance to stay rooted despite the ever-swaying headlines and the distraction of the Twitter feed. Jacobs invokes the phrase “temporal bandwidth” from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow: “‘Temporal bandwidth’ is the width of your present, your now . . . The more you dwell in the past and in the future, the thicker your bandwidth, the more solid your persona.” Instead of succumbing to the acceleration of our culture, Jacobs advises readers to increase their density. “By reading and considering the past, we cut through the thick, strong vines that bind our attention to the things of the moment,” writes Jacobs. “Our attention thereby becomes more free.” We thicken our souls with the wisdom of old books; we deepen our responses in these “shallow times.”

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In under 150 pages, Jacobs sets out to trump our twenty-first-century desire for the new with a love for old books. What hurdles does Jacobs face? For one, our age assumes egalitarianism to be the prioritization of marginalized voices over the traditional canon. In other words, because we pushed females and persons of color to the sidelines for hundreds of years as the canon was being formed, our culture discards the canon as a form of reparation, replacing white male writers with representatives of underrepresented groups. 

Yet, Jacobs reminds us that the voices of today would not have been possible without the legacy of the past. Jacobs uplifts Peter Abrahams, the South African-born novelist who first glimpsed “beauty and possibility and hope” in Tales from Shakespeare and John Keats, while also feeling empowered by the revelations of W.E. B DuBois.  Jacobs details how the experiences of Abrahams and others “show us that the power 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.” Our advantage is the freedom to dialogue with both those who dominated the canon—who may or may not be like us—and those who have not received enough attention and now deserve our notice. As G.K. Chesterton argues, “Tradition means giving votes to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” If we intend to be egalitarian, we need not cancel the past simply because dead writers cannot speak in their defense. 

But what if we find ideas that are challenging, offensive, or outdated? Jacobs describes our hesitancy to read contestable texts as what Terry Teachout calls the “theater of concurrence.” In reviewing Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2, Teachout laments that in 2017 there could be no other possibility for Ibsen’s protagonist Nora Helmer than to affirm the normalized choice to abandon one’s family for personal happiness. While Jacobs contends that perhaps Hnath’s play is more complex than Teachout perceives, the question remains whether audiences will permit more than a “theater of concurrence”? Are we “unable to hear a strange word, a different word, a word that takes us beyond what we already know”? Do we know how to read The Taming of the Shrew—to protest its dehumanization of women while also opening our minds to the timeless good within the play?

All texts—even the shiny new ones that we prize—will be tainted by the sins of the cultural moment. If texts are written by writers, and writers are human . . . you can see how the logic plays out. Rather than cancel writers for the temporal blindness of their work, we should adjust our stance towards the material. Instead of weighing books on scales of justice, we approach them, Jacobs suggests, as though they are our teachers, our hosts. Jacobs switches our assumed paradigm: “The author is not a guest at our table; we are a guest at hers.” When we read old books, we practice time travel, venturing back to sit among the writers of the past, not imposing upon them the manners of our present. This is not to say that we should excuse the immoral stances of the past. We should not overlook racism, antisemitism, misogyny. However, through humility, we sit before our hosts and listen for what is eternal in their words, without obsessing over what was temporal. Every moment has its own cultural blindness; we best overcome our own by stepping outside of contemporary texts and reading old books.  

 “Reading old books,” Jacobs continues, “is an education in reckoning with others; its hope is to make the other not identical with me but rather, in a sense, my neighbor.” Our books become our friends, and we do not want our friends merely to provide echo chambers for our own thoughts. “When we speak our thought, we want more than agreement,” Jacobs argues, “we want our friend to develop that thought, or to push back at it.” To read as though you are dialoguing with a friend will increase your generosity and openness to the other, and yet prevent you from thoughtlessly absorbing the writers’ ideas. Communing with these dead writers whose worlds are unlike our own teaches us how to love our neighbor.  

While Jacobs’s book is framed somewhat as a “self-help” guide to those who want a tranquil mind, the book is anything but that. Instead, the book pulls readers out of themselves and advises them to get thee to a bookstore. Help will come from others, from the wise ones of the past. The alternative to Jacobs’s admonition is for our memory to be erased. He quotes Milan Kundera’s novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: “the first step in liquidating a people…is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history . . . Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was.” In The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring film adaptation, Galadriel explains how the world has come to be chaotic and besieged by violence. She laments, “[S]ome things that should not have been forgotten were lost.” That we may always know who we are and what we are meant for, we need to remember the eternal things from our past. 

The title of Jacobs’s book is drawn from W.H. Auden: “Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.” Jacobs himself exemplifies what “breaking bread with the dead” looks like in this book by dining here with a host of various authors—living and dead. Following in the tradition of Socrates, who employs the metaphor of a “banquet” in speaking with his students in Timaeus and describes learning as a “feast of discourse,” Jacobs acts as our teacher, inviting us to share a meal of magnanimous proportions. He invites us, like the Lord invited Ezekiel, to eat this book. Rather, to eat many books and then to go, to share what you have heard, what you have loved, what you have found beautiful, and to teach others to love what is worth remembering, that they may have a more tranquil mind, and better yet, that they may be fed with more than bread alone. 

Jessica Hooten Wilson is Louise Cowan Scholar in Residence at the University of Dallas in the Classical Education and Humanities Graduate Program. She is the author of three books: Giving the Devil his Due: Flannery O’Connor and The Brothers Karamazov, which received a 2018 Christianity Today book of the year awardWalker Percy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the Search for Influence; and Reading Walker Percy’s Novels. In 2019 she received the Hiett Prize for Humanities from the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. She is co-editor of the volume Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West, a collection of essays on the legacy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Currently, she is preparing Flannery O’Connor’s unfinished novel Why Do the Heathen Rage? for publication.