Online Conversation | Breaking Bread with the Dead
with Alan Jacobs
We were delighted to welcome back Dr. Alan Jacobs to discuss his new book: Breaking Bread with the Dead: a Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind. In this new work, Jacobs encourages his readers to engage with voices of the past to gain wisdom and internal ballast for contemporary conundrums.
We hope you enjoy this conversation considering the virtues of interrogating the writings of the wise and pursuing a tranquil mind through reading.
Special thanks to this event’s sponsors:
Ann and Howard Dahl
The painting is The Vegetable Garden by Anton Mauve, 1888
The song is Joy Pours Out (Instrumental) by Christy Nockels
Transcript of “Breaking Bread with the Dead” with Alan Jacobs
Cherie Harder: Welcome to all of you joining us for this afternoon’s Trinity Forum conversation with Professor Alan Jacobs on his new book, Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a Tranquil Mind. The poet W. H. Auden once wrote that, “art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.” Our guest today, who is among the world’s foremost scholars of Auden, takes his counsel quite seriously, if not literally, in his compelling book, inspired by Auden, Breaking Bread with the Dead. He seeks to show his readers that engaging with the often provocative, strange, even unsettling writings of the past offers us not only the possibility of broadening our outlook or deepening our understanding, but also growing and thickening our reserves of resilience, imagination, and empathy, what he refers to as our ‘personal density’. At a time when virtually all of us must fend off an hourly onslaught of superfluous information and navigate a social media landscape shaped by algorithms that steal attention and withhold context, as well as populated by legions of clueless yet cruel trolls, it’s tempting and understandable to seek tranquility or at least relief by retreating to the familiar. But our guest today argues for exactly the opposite approach to forego retreat in favor of an adventure into the long ago and far away; to begin a conversation with, and be challenged by, interrogate and argue with voices from the past who have something to say as well as something to give; and to both extend and receive the sort of intellectual hospitality that expands our world and ourselves in a manner that leaves us both more internally robust as well as tranquil. It’s a provocative claim and a countercultural, even controversial, approach. And there are few who can make it with the wisdom, erudition or literary elegance of our guest today, Dr. Alan Jacobs. Alan is a scholar of English literature, a writer, and a literary critic who serves as the distinguished professor of the humanities at the Honors College at Baylor University, having previously taught at Wheaton College for nearly thirty years. A prolific author and a wide ranging thinker, he’s written for publications as broad as The Atlantic, Harper’s, Comment Magazine, The New Yorker, The Weekly Standard, and The Hedgehog Review, among many others, as well as published fifteen different works in literature, theology, and cognitive psychology, including How to Think, The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, The Year of Our Lord 1943, which we discussed with Alan just a couple of months ago, and of course, his brand new release, Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind, which we’ve invited him here today to discuss. Alan, welcome.
Alan Jacobs: Thank you so much, Cherie. It’s great to be here.
Cherie Harder: It’s really good to have you. So, of the many books you have written, I’m betting this is the first time you’ve written what you called a ‘self-help book’. And you make the interesting argument that engaging with old books, even with their often unjust, racist, or otherwise retrograde assumptions or arguments instead of being triggering, actually helps one stay tranquil in the here and now. So why would old books promote serenity?
Alan Jacobs: First of all, thanks for the wonderful introduction which I think shows you get exactly what I’m trying to do in the book, and thanks for this question. I think that first of all, I do want to say that I really am kind of serious when I call it a self-help book. There are many, many different reasons why one might study the past, thousands. But I really am focusing on why it might help what I call our ‘personal density’ to increase our temporal bandwidth. And the idea—we can talk about those terms maybe a little later on—but the idea goes something like this: When you are engaged with the works of the past, you are dealing with difference. You are dealing with people whose whole world is different than yours, people with different experiences, with a different outlook, with different ideas. You’re doing so in an environment that you control. We all know how difficult it can be to try to maintain our patience. We certainly don’t have any shot at serenity. We’re just trying to maintain our patience when we’re dealing with people who we strongly disagree with. But when it’s the voices from the past, and we are visiting their world, and we assume the posture of visitors, of guests, then we can, I think, get a little bit of distance on our emotions. They’re not going to talk back to us. They’re not going to fight back. They’re not going to do anything that will hurt us. If the encounter ends up being a little too intense for us, well, we can just close the book, and go away, and then come back to it later on when we’ve calmed down a little bit. It is training in encountering difference, but in a way that we have enough control over it, that it doesn’t have to agitate us and frustrate us. But maybe if we do that for a while, we can get a little better at dealing with our immediate neighbors as well.
Cherie Harder: Well, let’s talk a little bit about those terms and what you mean by personal density and how it is either formed or thickened.
Alan Jacobs: Yeah, so that phrase comes from the American novelist Thomas Pynchon. And it’s in one of his novels called Gravity’s Rainbow, which is an extraordinarily difficult novel. There’s a character in Gravity’s Rainbow. He’s a German engineer named Kurt Mondaugen, and he talks like a German engineer. At one point, he coins what he calls ‘Mondaugen’s Law’. And one of the conceits of Gravity’s Rainbow is that everybody knows it, it’s totally famous, even though, of course, Thomas Pynchon is just making it up. Mondaugen’s Law goes like this: Personal density is proportionate to temporal bandwidth. What he means is that if you have greater temporal bandwidth, what he calls the width of your now, he says then what that does when your approach to your everyday life reaches into the past and imaginatively reaches into the future. Then that increases your personal density, and I think maybe one of the best ways to understand what he means by personal density is to think about what the Apostle Paul says when he warns Christians against being blown about by every wind of doctrine. And I think if you’re on social media all the time, if you are on the Internet all the time, then the winds of doctrine, as it were, the winds that of public opinion, are blowing really, really hard. If that’s where you spend your whole life, you don’t have the personal density to resist that. The harder those winds of public opinion blow, then the farther you are going to be carried away by them. When Mondaugen says, when this character says, personal density is proportionate to temporal bandwidth, he’s saying that the more you understand about the past, the more you understand about human experience— And by the way, this was equally true of space. Understanding other cultures is extremely valuable even when they are in our own time. But because we have a kind of a global culture now, getting into the past is the way to get really, really alien experiences. And that gives us some perspective on our own moment, and when we have that perspective on our own moment, then we are able to judge things from a more secure and stable position. We have the personal density that allows us to do that, and we’re not just simply being blown about by every wind of doctrine. That’s the core idea.
Cherie Harder: I think probably many of our viewers are wondering about something that you sort of alluded to, which is can this kind of density be achieved through not just by going back, but by reading more broadly, reading outside the Western canon and choosing books written by someone other than dead white males, those of women and people of color, both dead and alive? Does it have the same, I guess, potency in increasing our density?
Alan Jacobs: I mean, first of all, I think that’s a very valuable thing to do. For many, many years. I taught a course in African literature, and I love teaching that class. And I would be happy to give book recommendations to people who want to study it because it is a way of stepping outside of our own experience. Even when you’re reading a writer like Chinua Achebe, or Wole Soyinka, or Bessie Head from Botswana, they may be from a different part of the world, but they’re still people whose experience is a twentieth century and twenty-first century experience, and it has a lot in common with our own. It’s recognizable in a lot of ways. And one of the fascinating things about reading it is that sort of tension between sameness and difference, like, oh, you’re experiencing some things that I’m familiar with, but because you are African in a very different way because you’re from Botswana, or from Nigeria, or from wherever it happens to be. And so there are definitely differences, but there’s also a kind of a commonality which results from the globalization of experience, which in turn results from the globalization of media. There’s, for instance, a great story and Wole Soyinka’s autobiography, one of his several works of autobiography called Ake, which is the name of the village that he grew up in central Nigeria. They listen to the radio, and on the radio, they hear about this terrible man named Hitler, and they start talking about what’s going to happen when Hitler invades Nigeria. He and his fellow children are all convinced that Hitler is going to come and attack them at some point. And, you know, it’s a very different way of encountering Hitler than you would have had if you were living in the US or in Europe. But it’s still recognizably the same world. They’re listening to the BBC. They’re listening to international English radio. And therefore, it’s a different world, but it’s very recognizable. You move far enough into the past, and it gets almost unrecognizable. These people who are whose experience day to day is so different than ours, whose core assumptions are so different than ours, that there’s a strangeness there that I think is the most valuable part. It’s the most valuable part of the experience is finding what’s strange and trying to encounter something that you wouldn’t find anywhere else, that you’re not going to hear from day to day. And that, I think, is where you can really start building that density.
Cherie Harder: So you’re a professor, and we hear a lot about students objecting to certain old works, feeling triggered and the like, and you actually made the argument that our information overload now is not unrelated to how easily we feel triggered by or defiled by old works. I’d love for you just to discuss that a little bit more.
Alan Jacobs: There are two phrases that I borrow from sociologists to describe our moment. One is Hartmut Rosa is a German sociologist who talks about social acceleration, the sense of things not just going fast but getting faster, and faster, and faster and our difficulties in keeping up. And a French thinker named Paul Virilio who says that the peculiar thing about that experience is that we all feel that we are at a frenetic standstill—which I think is a great phrase a ‘frenetic standstill’— that we feel like everything is just moving a zillion miles an hour, but we’re actually not going anywhere. We’re just kind of stuck in place. I think that’s because everything is coming at us so fast. We’re getting so overwhelmed by the information that we hardly have the opportunity to do anything except just kind of deal with it. I was writing something about this a few weeks ago, and I was writing the phrase ‘the firehose of information’, and then I looked down and looked at my screen and I saw that I had written the ‘dire hose of information’. And I think that’s actually a pretty good word for it because we’re dealing with the dire hose. When that’s happening, our first and very rational response is to practice a kind of triage, like battlefield triage. You say, okay well this, I’m going to deal with, and this I’m going to set aside for later, and this I’m going to totally ignore. When you’re having all of that information, somebody comes at you with an idea that’s very strange or that at least seems to be offensive, then you’re like, nope, nope, not doing that, ruling that out, not going to deal with it, not going to listen to it. It’s really just kind of self-preservation that gives you that desire to get away from the thing, especially if that thing feels like it is defiling you in some way, like this is offensive and disgusting. No, I’m not going to deal with that. You’ll hear people say sometimes life’s too short to deal with stuff like that. You know, I get the feeling. I get the feeling, but we need actually to be able to discern the difference between ideas that are truly offensive and ideas that only seem to be offensive because we actually haven’t understood them yet. That is what stepping back and stepping away from the dire hose allows you to do. Any of us who have had children know that it doesn’t work just to say no to children. You have to be able to give them an alternative. You have to be able to say, don’t do this, but do this instead. And adults are exactly the same. You tell them, get off of Twitter, get off of Facebook, get off of Instagram. Well, I mean, you can say that, but what are they supposed to do instead? And what I want to suggest is stay away from those things long enough to read something from the past, peacefully, quietly, at your own pace. I mean, just the very act of reading a book itself, being disconnected from the Internet while you’re reading, that’s already a step in the right direction. And then if it’s a voice that’s going to tell you something you would never in a million years hear on Twitter, and Instagram, and Facebook, then that’s added value. It’s just so good in so many ways for enabling us to get out of the dire hose and when we come back to it, be maybe a little more balanced and a little more able to make discerning judgments rather than just have emotional reactions.
Cherie Harder: Let’s talk a bit about how one actually reads, and you gave a bit of advice to your readers that some people might consider a little bit unexpected, which is you said that so often people are encouraged to read old books, to set aside their assumptions, and enter the world of the old texts. And you said, I think this is bad advice, and you advocated for something that you called ‘double reading’. What is double reading and how can we do it?
Alan Jacobs: Yeah, I’ve always thought that it’s bad advice when people say you should suspend your judgments. You should set aside your own personal beliefs when you’re reading the works of the past. But if you’re setting aside your own judgments, and you’re setting aside your own beliefs, then how are you going to learn anything from those works that is going to be able to affect you? No, you need to keep your judgments in play, but all of them, not just some of them. I’ll give you an example. I am so, so blessed to be able to teach old books all the time, and I was in one of my classes. We were reading Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, and that’s not a super old book, but it’s a couple of hundred years old. That’s long enough to make it a somewhat different world than the one that we live in every day. And it was really interesting to work with my students over one of the characters in that book, Sir Thomas Bertram because Sir Thomas is very much a kind of patriarch of the old school. You know, he is a man of dignity. He is a man who values his family’s social standing. He disparages any ideas that would challenge the existing social order. It would be easy to make a kind of bogeyman out of him, but I think all of my students recognized that he’s an intensely human character because during the course of the story, he comes to realize how many bad decisions he made in the raising of his children. At the end of the book, he really has to struggle with this sense of failure that he did so much wrong that he can’t fix, but he takes comfort in the good things that have come about and tries not to be made miserable by the bad things. And he’s just an utterly admirable character, even if he happens to hold a set of views that those of us who are more democratically inclined might not like. We might not want to live in a society as hierarchical as the one that he lives in. And that’s totally fine for us to think that the hierarchical structures of that society are not politically and socially ideal, but let’s also not set aside our ability to recognize how wonderful it is when a person is actually able to say, “I messed up, I did not act wisely and I need to act more wisely in the future.” How often do we even hear that, right? I mean, that’s not the most common thing that we hear from anybody these days. And that, by the way, I think is also a little bit related to social media in the sense, as you put yourself out there as having a particular position, you know that a thousand people might retweet it. Then the inclination when you’re challenged is to try to double down, and justify yourself, and defend yourself. To see an example of a proud, dignified man who has to go back and sit in his room and think, “I was foolish, I was unwise,” that’s a really powerful thing to see. And it’s something that we can admire, even if we don’t share his politics. The idea is not to suspend your beliefs but keep all of your beliefs in play. If you are democratically inclined and you don’t think that a society should be that hierarchical, keep that in play, but also keep in play your belief that it is good to acknowledge with humility your own sins and shortcomings. In that way, you can have a really complex and nuanced understanding of the text that actually helps you to have a more complex and nuanced understanding of yourself. That’s how I think it works anyway.
Cherie Harder: In addition to writing books about pedagogy and old books, you’ve also written a fair amount about social media. I’m curious the extent to which you would believe that the medium itself has something to do with our lack of density. And we’re getting more and more of our information from social media. We are as a whole reading less, reading old books less, reading novels less, reading for pleasure less, we comprehend what we read less, and we are tending toward social media that are themselves quite ephemeral. I think of Snapchat where it is an image that disappears. To what extent is the medium itself contributing to our lack of density as opposed to the content?
Alan Jacobs: One of the things that people will often say is that technologies are neutral. It’s just how we use them. And that is simply not true. No technology is neutral. None. I’m talking about knives and forks. A knife is not neutral. A knife is something which is designed for a particular purpose, and it is easy to use it for that particular purpose, and it’s hard to use it for another purpose, fork similarly. It makes no sense to say, well, go ahead and eat your soup with this fork because after all, technologies are neutral. It’s just how you use them. No, you can’t eat your soup with a fork. The liquid will pass between the tines of the fork. This is reality. And so, every technology has affordances, as the students of technology call it. It affords certain possibilities and it either disables or sidelines other possibilities. So especially Twitter, I think, the affordances of Twitter are to reply immediately and to share whatever you find most striking, whether you find it striking for good reasons or for bad reasons. It was a terrible day for humanity when one of the engineers at Twitter created the retweet button because what that does is allow some really nasty stuff to spread at an incredibly rapid pace. And when everybody in your feed is retweeting the same thing, you think that that is a lot bigger than it actually is. You think the idea’s more prominent than it actually is. You have no ability to discern what’s really commonplace versus what’s rare. You’re just at the mercy of whatever the dire hose is sending you. One of the things I’ve noticed is that since I’ve gotten off social media—and I do most of my news reading on a weekly basis. I subscribe to The Economist, and one of the things I love about The Economist is that at the beginning of each week, of each issue it’s got this whole list of here are the main things that happen in the world over the past week. And that’s often how I find stuff out. And sometimes I discover that between one issue of The Economist and the next, that some of my friends who are on social media have been through about four cycles of outrage about something, you know, where they were really mad about something, and then they found out that the thing they were really mad about wasn’t true, and then they got really mad at the person who told them about the thing that they found out wasn’t true. Then something else comes across that makes them even angrier than they were before, and then they forget about the former thing. And they’ve been through this cycle like four times, and I’ve no idea what’s going on. I mentioned to you before we got started that if my son hadn’t texted me this morning, I wouldn’t have known that the president has contracted COVID-19. And you know what? It would be totally fine if I didn’t know that. It would be totally fine. I mean, you know, I’ll find out in next week’s issue of The Economist. What this is encouraging is bite size pieces of information, you know, with the scare quotes, because it’s often not information. It’s misinformation processed instantaneously and then replaced almost immediately by something else. Those affordances really have a paralytic effect on our minds because that’s what Virilio means when he talks about frenetic standstill, is that I can’t even fully process the first thing before the next thing comes along, and then I can’t process that before the third thing comes along. This idea of being able to slow down your reception of information, read it in much bigger chunks, set it down and think about it, pick it up and read it again, make notes in the margin or write in a notebook, just that slowness of that is in which you are not consuming, but rather you are reflecting. Certain medieval theologians said that the thing to do with scripture is to do what cows do. You chew the cud, you chew it, you swallow it, you fetch it back up again, chew it some more, and the idea is that you’re continually masticating. Right? And when you have something that is of substance, something that is of value, something that is beautiful, it rewards that kind of repeated reflective attention. I think that makes you—it’s pacifying. It gives you a certain degree of peacefulness and serenity, what I call in this book tranquility, and it makes you less vulnerable to the social media tsunamis that can wash over you without washing you away because you have the personal density to withstand them.
Cherie Harder: Before we go to questions from our viewers, I need to ask—one of the things I’ve loved about your book is it’s clearly a work of intellectual hospitality, describing intellectual hospitality, both the invitation to give our attention to voices from the past, as well as the invitation to join in a conversation that began long before we did. But for anyone now, we have an excess of not only legitimate claims upon our time and attention, but an excess of invitations both from the ephemeral and from the substantive and worthy, and it can be very difficult to prioritize what we give our attention to. You’ve made this in many ways your life’s work. How do you decide what invitations to accept first?
Alan Jacobs: That’s a really hard question to answer, or it’s not hard to answer. It’s hard to answer in a way that’s useful to somebody else. What I have done over the years is to try to pay attention to my own patterns of behavior. I have notebooks, I keep track of what I read, and what I think about what I read, and I try to go back and revisit those. What I’ve gotten better and better at over the years is developing a kind of a sixth sense for what I need to listen to now and what I can set aside. I just don’t know that there’s any way to do that except by learning from your own experience. To be able to say, well, I heeded this invitation, how did that work out? And just kind of build up a whole body of knowledge based on your own history. I think it’s not enough just to read, but also to find a way to interact with what you read and record that in such a way that you can see your own history. One of the seventeenth century Puritans recommends keeping a spiritual diary or journal which I don’t do, at least not in the sense that he was talking about. He said, I need that so that I can see my life in frame from time to time, which I think is a really interesting word. You step back away from your experience, and you know if you go to a museum and you’re looking at a painting, sometimes you realize you’re standing too close to be able to see it, and then you have to back up and find that right distance so that you can take in the whole picture. Well, that’s what a kind of a record of our experiences as readers allows us to do with our own lives, our own experiences to step back and see that pattern. Once you become more aware of the patterns that you have, then you can become a better judge of what it is that you need to do in the future. Again, I think that’s a matter of personal density. I feel that having gotten out of the dire hose, I am better able to make decisions that are meaningful and appropriate for me. I’ve just got more time to think about what it is that I want to devote my attention to, and I’m not letting somebody else determine what I should be giving my attention to. So that may not help anybody in specific ways, but I think it does maybe suggest the kinds of personal practices we need to have that will help us to learn from our own experience and not just have that experience.
Cherie Harder: So, our first question comes from viewer Michael Lundy. And Michael asks, “This sort of controlled time travel you advocate echoes C. S. Lewis’ admonition to read old books. I think C. S. Lewis actually advocated reading at least one old book for every new one. How does this help understand the nature and dangers of the ever narrowing nowness of today’s radicalized political tone?”
Alan Jacobs: If I’m remembering rightly, Lewis said that the ideal ratio is three old books for every one new. He was very committed to the old. Lewis’ view was this that—there’s a lot that I could say about this, so let me try to summarize it as best I can. There’s a passage in one of his books where he says that—and the historian Alfred North Whitehead makes exactly the same point in his book, Science in the Modern World. Both he and Lewis say that the most significant beliefs of a given period are not the things that they argue about. It’s the things that they don’t argue about because everybody agrees. That is the key. I was actually telling my students this the other day, and I said we have these incredibly intense political arguments, but we never have arguments about whether or not we should have an absolute monarchy. It’s not that; that just isn’t on the table because there is just kind of disagreement that whatever kind of government that we have, some sort of representative democracy is what we ought to have. We don’t have to argue about that because that at least we agree on. I think the great thing about, or one of the many great things about going back in the past, is the ways in which it enables you to realize, among other things, how much we actually do have in common. We may think we have absolutely nothing in common, but that’s because we’re only aware of the things that we’re arguing about, not the things that we take for granted. I think that in a strange sort of way, recognizing the radically alien character of many thinkers of the past ought to enable us to have a little bit more charity towards our neighbors and to find some common ground, maybe not as much as we would like to have but something on which we might be able to build or at least to have a conversation rather than a shouting match.
Cherie Harder: Jay Wieland asks, “How does music and other word works of art add to our density?”
Alan Jacobs: One of the little parlor games I like to play is to ask people if you had to lose either your eyesight or your hearing, which would you give up and to which people almost always say, how about if I lost one ear and one eye? No, no, no, no, that’s not how this works. Even though I am the most devoted reader imaginable and I don’t do audio books, I would have to have my hearing because music is so vital to me. Then I would learn how to use audio books at that point. Music is one of the great sources of tranquility for me. In fact I could have written a book just recommending that, but I think that the particular value of old books—see the value of music is that it takes me out of the realm of words and ideas altogether into—and I’m thinking of pure music here and I’m thinking of instrumental music. It takes me out of that world altogether, the world of ideas, and debates, and conflict, and it certainly gives me other kinds of conflict. But it’s so different than the verbal interactions and the textual interactions that we have all the time that it’s really, really valuable. But what’s so great about old books is their power to let us hear the voices of people who are so different from us, who are articulating ideas that we would never think of, experiences that we’ve never had and yet who are recognizably human. I’ll just give a quick example of that. This is a story that I’ve told, I think, in three different books because I love it so much. When Machiavelli was exiled from Florence, his political allies fell out of power, and he lost his place, and he had to go out and live in the countryside outside of Florence. He talks about how he would go out walking around in the fields, but then he would end up kind of gravitating down to a nearby village, and there’d be a little tavern in the village, and he would get into arguments with the agricultural workers. So, he’s basically getting in these shouting matches with the local rednecks. And then he says, but then I would embarrass myself. I would behave ridiculously. Then I would go home, and I would take off my working clothes, and I would put on my robes, and I would go into my study. There, I would encounter the great thinkers and artists of the past, and they would receive me with hospitality and treat me as an equal. And he said, This is what I was born to do, not arguing with the local drunkards down at the tavern. That wasn’t getting him anywhere. But it’s interesting because he says, I couldn’t resist it. I can’t resist getting into that sort of thing. The sixteenth century Tuscan countryside version of Twitter is having these fights. But then he finds, no, there’s real dignity and there’s real communication to be had in exchanging thoughts with these people. That, I think, is the really distinctive thing about old books as opposed to music or the visual arts or especially old books, old music, and old art. Those are all wonderful, incredibly powerful things that I would love to talk about them at more length. But I especially like the idea of the voices from the past and the particular humanizing effect they can have upon us.
Cherie Harder: So, Heather Black asks, “What is the role of humility within this framework for reading of the past?”
Alan Jacobs: I think if you go to the past really willing to hear, you may find yourself with the humility to take seriously ideas that you would never take seriously if they were presented to you by someone of your own time and place. It’s not necessarily that you would come to agree, but you can imagine a human context in which someone might think of these ideas. There’s an example I give in the book of just this absolutely wonderful writer, Dorothy Osborne. She’s, I think, the greatest letter writer in the English language and is just —she’s like Jane Austen one hundred and fifty years before Jane Austen because she was writing in the 1640s and 50s. But all of her writing is letters to her fiancée, and she actually speaks really disparagingly of women who write. She says, you know, if I didn’t sleep for a fortnight, it wouldn’t come to that. It’s just a terrible thing to her, and then when she gets married, then that’s it. No more writing because she’s with the person she loves, and she doesn’t need to write the letters anymore. It’s such a strange experience because on the one hand, I’m reading her and I’m thinking you’re one of the most wonderful writers I have ever read. I wish you had written novels. And she’s like, nah, I don’t care about any of that stuff. You know, I only wrote because I had to, and I had to because I was separated from the person I loved. Then once we shared the same bed and sat at the same breakfast table, then I didn’t need to write letters anymore. On the one hand, I’m thinking, oh, how terrible. You know, the world needs your gift, you know? But on the other hand, I’m thinking, wow, how interesting that someone would think that way, that you can’t imagine anyone today thinking. It’s just fascinating to reflect on how she might have come to see things that way, even if I regret it, which I do. I think that encounter, when you have a real encounter with the past, it almost forces you into a position of humility. You’re having to listen to something that you didn’t really even plan to listen to. And yet there it is.
Cherie Harder: Stephen Wutz asks, “What authors have most increased your personal density?”
Alan Jacobs: I think the most important writer for me in my life has been W. H. Auden, and I have been enormously privileged to be able to study his work, to write about it, to edit. I’ve edited two of his books, critical editions of his books, and I’ve got another one that I’m beginning to work on now. I think one of the reasons for that is that Auden was—his best critic, who is also his literary executor, Edward Mendelson said Auden was the first major poet to be completely at home in the twentieth century. He didn’t spend his time longing to live in some other time, in some other place, as T.S. Eliot had done, and as Ezra Pound had done, and as William Butler Yeats had done. He was a twentieth century person, and he knew it, and he was at home, but because he was at home in the twentieth century, he felt free to draw on the wisdom of all the ages. And so, just trying to understand his poetry and understanding what it was he was reading, and where these ideas came from, and what he’s drawing on that has been an education in itself. I think it’s a great example of what the previous question was about is the humility Auden has in relation to the writers of the past has probably done more to shape my own desire to have a similar humility. He has just meant the world to me, and I’m so grateful that I discovered him. I didn’t really discover Auden until the very last course I took in graduate school, and then I had to try to sort of restructure my whole dissertation and everything to try to spend more time with him, and he has really been great company over the decades.
Cherie Harder: Our next question comes from Eric Bateman, and Eric writes, “Do you and if so, how do you see your book jumping the gap between self-help for individuals and help for our common public life? Many of the issues around cancel culture, especially in the university, have to do with questions for the public good. Is it okay for professors to ask victims of abuse to read text that might bring up painful memories? Is it okay to give disproportionate public attention to authors with problematic views, etc.? Does Breaking Bread with the Dead have anything to say about these sorts of bigger questions?”
Alan Jacobs: I certainly hope so, and in fact, it was written specifically because of this context. I don’t talk about it that directly because I don’t want to put people on the spot, and I don’t want people to feel that they’re being judged. But there are certain passages in the book that I quite consciously intended as a response to the impulse to cancel that arises from a feeling of defilement. The primary example of that is the chapter of my book that deals with Frederick Douglass and especially with his great speech that he gave in 1852, I think on what The Meaning of the Fourth of July to the Slave [sic]. It’s just an amazing, amazing speech because of the way that he embodies all of the virtues that I am trying to command in my book. When Douglass says, he says, I look at these, the founders of America, and I hear the celebration of what they have done on this Fourth of July, and he says, It’s a day of festivity for you, but it’s not for me. It’s not a day of festivity for me, and it’s not a day of festivity for him because the lack of courage on the part of the founders meant that he was born into slavery and meant that his escape from slavery was very uncertain. And he says, I can’t rejoice on this day because while I have my freedom, many, many millions of people with my color do not have theirs. Then he says, But you know what? I read the works of the founders, and I listen to what they said, and I realize, as he puts it, they were great in their day and generation. They were truly great. That balance, right? They were great in so many ways, and yet, they fell short in ways that have been catastrophic for people like me. I mean, it would be so easy for Douglass to say, I have nothing good to say about these people. He sees them as people whose ideals were exactly the ideals that they should have had at a time when many people did not have those ideals. The problem is that they did not live up to them as fully as they needed to. So the balance there between acknowledging the validity and indeed the necessity of the ideals, and also acknowledging the ways in which even the best people don’t live up to their ideals, that is such a model of charitable engagement on the part of someone who could claim, “Sorry, this is just too painful for me. There’s just too much pain here.” No, he doesn’t do that. He looks it right in the eye, and I wouldn’t demand that anybody do that, but I think he’s a great example. I think sometimes if people think—and I’ve been in situations like this with students before where they have said, “I don’t think I can read this book because this is really painful to me,” and you want to take that seriously. And sometimes I’ve said, “Let’s read something else.” Sometimes I’ve said, “Okay, don’t read these parts of the book, but read the rest of it.” And sometimes we’ve come to an agreement that they’re going to read it, even though it’s painful, and we’re going to talk through it. I think in that kind of situation, especially in a university setting or any sort of teaching setting, everything, literally everything, depends on whether there is a relationship of trust between the student and the teacher. You can get students to read almost anything if they know that you care about them, and that you wish them well, and that you want to do everything you can to secure their well-being. If they know that about you, then they’ll go with you into some difficult places. And it won’t always be easy, but it’s usually really rewarding for all of us if we have that mutual trust.
Cherie Harder: Great. So our next question comes from Chris Baca, who asks a little bit about the perhaps contrarian nature of a self-help book that instead of talking about mindfulness in the moment look to the past and Chris asked, “Do you see the notion of expanding one’s temporal bandwidth as being at odds with some of the current notions about living in the present? And if so, why?”
Alan Jacobs: Yeah, I think that a lot of people who talk about living in the present think that they are endorsing mindfulness, but they’re actually misunderstanding the concept of mindfulness, and they’re misunderstanding the concept of living in the present. If what you are doing is cultivating a kind of silent, meditative embrace of the world around you, then you are getting yourself out of the dire hose, right? If instead you’re texting, and you’re receiving text, and you’re ‘doom scrolling’—another word that people use these days— and you’re continually engaged in that, you’re actually not in the moment. You’re not in the moment. You’re not present. You’re actually always waiting for the next thing, waiting for the next thing, right? Genuine mindfulness is nothing like that, and genuinely being in the present is nothing like that. There’s a sermon—I think about this so often—it’s a sermon that Rowan Williams gave about twenty years ago where he talks about prayer as being like bird watching, that if you’re a bird watcher, you know that you might sit there all day and nothing will happen. You’ll never see any of the birds that you came to see. Nothing will happen. You have these long, long periods in which you know that nothing will happen. But he said, but in those periods, what you do if you’re an expert bird watcher is you keep your mind, and I love this phrase, he says both slack and attentive. That is, your mind is kind of quiet. It’s not tense. It’s not working things over, but it’s still attentive so that when something does come within your field of vision, you will recognize it. He says that he thinks that’s what prayer is like, being in the presence of God is like this. He says you might have a long, long period in which you’re waiting on God and nothing is happening. But then, that moment comes, and God is present, and your mind needs to be slack but also attentive to be ready for that when it happens. That I think is real, really being in the moment, and that is really being present. But that is a discipline that is very difficult to achieve. It’s something that I’m certainly not very good at. But in a paradoxical sort of way, breaking bread with the dead is something that helps me to that. That is the habits I learn of patience, and forbearance, and reflectiveness, and not just going with immediate responses or instinctive responses, but having more considered responses, taking setting something aside for a while to think about it, then coming back to it, all of these things are slowing me down and they’re giving me more patience. That is actually all really, really good training for prayerfulness, meditatedness, being genuinely in the moment. So, in a strange sort of way, if you want to be truly present, then it’s really good to prepare for that by spending a lot of time in the past.
Cherie Harder: That’s great.
Alan Jacobs: Many years ago I wrote a book that I called A Theology of Reading, and in that book I talked about thinking of books as our neighbors, as temporary neighbors and to read them with Jesus’ great twofold commandment in mind, that the summary of the law is to love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Loving your neighbor in books is easier than loving the neighbor who is actually right next door and maybe is a little obnoxious in more ways than one. But I would really encourage you to think of treating books as your neighbors and encountering them as practice for loving your more immediate neighbors. If you think of it as a kind of a training in charity, then encountering old books can be even more enriching to you.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Alan, thanks so much for joining us today.
Alan Jacobs: Thank you so much for inviting me.
Cherie Harder: Thank you to all of you for joining us for the past hour. Have a great weekend.