By Alan Jacobs, Penguin Press, 192 pages, $25
Now that we have to advocate for so many things that should be no-brainers (e.g., racial equity, science, fair elections), why not, like writer Alan Jacobs, take up the cause for reading books? To be fair to the author, his new volume, Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a Tranquil Mind, argues on behalf of certain kinds of books, those from periods of human experience not our own. These days, that may be a tough sell.
Jacobs, a Christian intellectual with a long list of publications on English literature, theology, and history, gained mainstream readers in recent years with a couple of general interest titles. The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction and How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds were erudite yet accessible, and his support for the tolerance of opposing ideas has appealed to the moderate-minded. Much of what he says here about “the value of paying attention to old books” will sound supremely reasonable to those who believe it is good to read them and to read as many of them as possible. Some of what he says, and in certain cases what he neglects to say, will remind readers why they should broaden their tastes beyond the Western canon.
This book is a response, at least in part, to what Jacobs describes as “a common current attitude: all history hitherto is at best a sewer of racism, sexism, homophobia, and general social injustice, at worst an abattoir which no reasonable person would even want to peek at.” The tone of that line notwithstanding, he subsequently clarifies he wants readers “to acknowledge the current call to name injustice for what it is while denying that that calls for old books to be thrown in the trash, or simply ignored.” This author often takes some palpable pains to deliver his own thoughts inoffensively. His rhetorical strategy is not to debate the content of old books but to appeal to people’s self-interest.
Reading from and about history — or “breaking bread with the dead,” as the quoted W.H. Auden line has it — doesn’t just deepen our understanding of the past, Jacobs argues; that deeper understanding increases our own “personal density.” (In Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow, personal density is described as “directly proportional to temporal bandwidth,” which is “the width of your present, your now.”)
Today, Jacobs writes, we live so distractedly, so situationally, that “we lack the density to stay put even in the mildest breeze from our news feeds.” Additionally, “to acquire the requisite density you have to get out of your transitory moment and into bigger time.”
But what to do, for example, with the sexism of the Iliad, the racism and colonialism of Robinson Crusoe, the anti-Semitism of The House of Mirth? Jacobs believes those issues should be reckoned with, and that means reading the books. “We sift the past for its wisdom and its wickedness, its perception and its foolishness,” he writes.
When you can’t stomach the text, he says, you can always close the book. “Here’s one of the most important traits of authors of old books: they’re dead. You can neither punish them nor reward them.” (Of course, that conveniently leaves out more complicated cases of living authors who can be punished or rewarded or, dare I say it, “canceled.”)
Jacobs praises the “cold-eyed clarity” with which the English historian C.V. Wedgwood wrote about the moral and ethical deficiencies and mendacities of the figures involved in the Thirty Years War and the English Civil War. She was “never surprised by them,” he writes. And maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by the sheer brutality of human history, perhaps even of human nature. With respect to the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of our ancestors, he writes, “If we understand that this pervasive inconsistency, this inability to transcend the interests of people who look or act or believe just like us, is universal, then perhaps — just perhaps — we will be less likely to believe that we are immune to it.”
Jacobs is a proponent of difference and distance as a means of increasing perspective. There are a number of stories here of figures who have gained insight from authors across time and culture. In recent years, for example, the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh has found that he was better able to fathom the enormity of climate change from reading pre-modern Bengali literature. Other examples he supplies — how Frederick Douglass “treasured the words of an Irishman speaking in the British Parliament” on the suppression of the Catholic church; the way Zadie Smith found a role model in the Romantic poet John Keats — tend to remind us that non-White, non-male readers have been doing this, reaching beyond cultural boundaries, and finding meaningful connection in works by White men, for centuries.
They’ve had to. Because, of course, what can be read from “the past” — what is available to be read, what is assigned to you in school — is a function of who had the status and wherewithal to write, publish, or translate it in the first place.
If reading helps us understand ourselves better by understanding others, then maybe Jacobs has missed an opportunity to show the degree to which he has benefited from his own reading beyond the Western ethnocentric norm.
Jacobs says that when we pick up an old book, we know that “another human being from another world has spoken to us.” That sense of appreciation may well be applied to the work of all writers, living and dead. There are many worlds, past and present, from which another may speak.