Breaking Bread with the Dead, Alan Jacobs. New York: Penguin Press, 2020.
Summary: A case for reading old books as a means of increasing our “personal density” to expand our temporal bandwidth.
Alan Jacobs teaches students to read old books and contends, contrary to many critics, that this reading is essential in a day when we are bombarded by an avalanche of information, and all matter of questions about the future. Drawing upon Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow, he argues that old books increase our “personal density” through expanding our temporal bandwidth.
What does this mean? Jacobs is not arguing for learning from the lessons of the past or that old books help us recognize universal truths. Rather, he suggests that the great works of the past startle us with their difference. They help us see the choices of our own age in light of those of the past. They are the “other,” the “generative oddkin.” Jacobs believes that understanding how people of other ages met the challenges of life equip us to better face challenges of the future than if we draw only upon the resources of the present.
The greatest challenge to Jacobs’ proposal is the invidious aspects of many of these works–racist, chauvinist, colonialist, and more. Jacobs does not deny any of that. What he observes is that those in the past often enunciated ideas, the implications they failed to fully grasp in their own lives. He points to the American founders who laid the groundwork for our own ideals of equality, yet held slaves and failed until 100 years ago to enfranchise women. Reading them forces us to ask how future generations will evaluate us. Drawing upon Ursula LeGuin’s novel Lavinia, an adaptation of the Aeneid, giving voice to the woman Aeneas loved, Jacobs argues both that we read with double vision, recognizing both the work and the flawed character of work, and that our reading from our time can bring new insight that perhaps even an author like Virgil had not grasped.
Jacobs develops these themes through nine essays in which we consider works like The Iliad, The Doll’s House, and Jane Eyre, and authors from Virgil to Italo Calvino. He contends that the presence and tranquility of mind enabling us to meet the challenges of the day comes from a perspective that goes beyond “the latest thing.” If we read only sources from the present, as diverse as they may be, we may still be caught in “echo chambers.” Sometimes, the voices of the past will give voice and words that make sense of our own reality. At other times they will startle and challenge us. Rather than lulling us to sleep with placid verities, they challenge and shake us up, nurturing the kind of resistance fostering “unfragile” and resilient thought.
Jacobs does all this in elegant prose evoking the voices he would have us give more careful attention–an engaging read and a warm invitation.