A few years ago I spoke with Alan Jacobs about his book, The Year of Our Lord, 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis. A professor of humanities at Baylor University, Jacobs is well known for publishing a wide range of books and essays on topics including hermeneutic charity, the technology of reading and the challenge of thinking in a fractured age. He is also a former professor and friend. We recently carried on a dialogue, over email, discussing his latest book, Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind. In it, Jacobs argues for why we must give attention to voices of the past if we wish to contend seriously with the dizzying dynamics of our socially mediated information age.
—Robert L. Kehoe III
Robert L. Kehoe III: What motivated you to write this book and how long had you been stewing over the idea?
Alan Jacobs: This book started germinating while I was still writing How To Think. I still believe that the advice I give in that book is good advice, but even as I was working on it something was nagging at me, which was the problem of how to get people into a frame of mind in which they could become more attentive to their habits, their dispositions of mind and attention—and then to realize where and how those habits and dispositions need to be changed. That can only be achieved if you can get yourself out of what Paul Virilio calls a condition of “frenetic standstill”—the condition habitually created by what people have recently started called “doomscrolling,” the appalled but compulsive viewing of the danse macabre of malice and stupidity that our social media and news feeds present us every day. And you’re only going to do that if you have something meaningful and interesting to turn your attention to. Old books aren’t the only option, but they’re a darn good one.
RK: So before we dive into Breaking Bread with the Dead, can you summarize for readers who haven’t encountered How To Think what you were up to in that book? Both it and The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction certainly resonate with this new title.
AJ: I wrote The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction largely for my former students and for those like them—dutiful readers, people who feel guilty about not reading seriously or strenuously enough. How To Think, by contrast, was written at a moment of increasing social tension and for my fellow citizens—though it drew heavily on what I had learned through 35 years in the classroom. It was only when I started working on Breaking Bread with the Dead that I realized that I was once again bringing up water from that deep well of teaching experience, that I was in fact completing what I’ve come to call my “pedagogical trilogy.”
RK: Being one of those former students, reading the trilogy felt like as intimate a return to your classroom as possible from a distance. But one thing that stood in sharp contrast from the experience of my generation is your description of walking into a room that is no longer full of eager smiles or anxious glowers, awaiting one of your infamous (admittedly effective) pop quizzes. Instead, early in Breaking Bread with the Dead you describe how walking into the room today you see “every head bowed before a glowing screen,” fingers twitching every so often to reach for the bag once class begins and the phone is stowed. How did that observation of a collective twitchiness inform the development of your appeal for reading old books?
AJ: You know, that picture has been complicated for me a little since I wrote that passage. Last year I had a class, two classes in fact, in which most of the people knew one another quite well. And whenever I walked into the classroom they would be chatting away about the reading for the day. On several occasions I came in with my book and notes and ended up just sitting there listening to them for fifteen minutes or so before I waded in. Sometimes their topics of discussion would dovetail with what I had planned to talk about, but sometimes not, and when they didn’t I just ignored my notes and ran with what interested them.
Thinking about the experience later I realized that the key factor was that the students who were already friends didn’t talk only to one another, but welcomed their classmates into the conversation. It was wonderful to see, and to participate in, and I wish it could happen all the time. Further, I realized that when I walk into a room of people texting or social-media-ing, that probably means that they don’t know the people sitting next to them very well. And in that case the real problem with everyone having phones is that they don’t bother to connect with their actual, if temporary, neighbor.
In any event, my greater concern in writing this book was with people who are more likely to go online to refute and taunt their enemies than connect with friends. They are the ones with a particular need to step back, step away and reflect for a while—they need old books more than lonely and socially insecure students do.
I’ve heard it said—and I’m sorry I don’t know the original source of this, if there is one—“When you’re angry, never do anything that feels good.” My hope is that at least some people who read my book will find an exception to that rule, will find that reading old books can feel good in a way very different, and better, than the way dunking on a political enemy does.
RK: That’s a really interesting and touching illustration. But I can imagine entering a room full of antisocial bookworms who respond similarly to a bound collection of pages as they might to a mobile screen. I’m also reminded of the old anecdote about Nazis who listened to Mozart and read Rilke. For that matter, I frequently observe well-read people on Twitter readily engaging in cruel enemy-dunking. So how do you think about those possible outcomes, relative to the spiritually robust vision of cultivating a “tranquil mind” that you articulate in Breaking Bread? For me, it’s not simply the act of reading old books that you’re appealing for. It’s a way of reading, too.
AJ: I have long been an advocate of the idea that what we read matters less than how we read it—I wrote a whole book about this, many years ago, and I have often had cause in the intervening years to remind my students (and sometimes their parents) that there’s nothing automatically ennobling about reading the classics. But the relentless presentism of our moment, as social media keep us on an ever-turning hamster wheel of outrage and horrified fascination, makes it valuable to get off that wheel in any way we can. Reading anything other than social media and news feeds is already a victory, even if you read badly. It’s a step towards reclaiming your attention. Going for a walk without your cell phone, taking a few minutes to meditate, prepping dinner without digitally transmitted sound in the background—all of these are small acts of rebellion. Reading old books and reading them with charity—the subject of my long-ago book—is an especially powerful way to reorient the frame of your consciousness, but almost anything that disconnects you is a step in the right direction.
RK: Which leads me to inquire further about your analysis of presentism, what it is, how it functions, and (perhaps) its individual, communal and larger political dangers.
AJ: I’ve long been fascinated by the winter sport called the biathlon: in it, athletes ski cross-country for long distances as fast as they can go, but are forced to stop occasionally, remove a rifle from their shoulders and fire at a target. Success in the biathlon is determined by a combination of the speed at which they can ski and the accuracy with which they can shoot. The problem is that these two skills are difficult to practice at the same time. Cross-country skiing raises your heart and respiration rates considerably, with the result that when you pause to shoot at a target the thumping of your heart and the pumping of your lungs are no friends to accuracy. As a result, the successful biathlete has to develop the skill of deliberately slowing his or her heart and breathing for as long as it takes to aim and fire at the target.
Studying the past, or simply exposing yourself to the voices of the past, is the mental equivalent of the biathlete’s exercise in biofeedback. The “dire hose” of information, misinformation and agitation that we call the internet raises my pulse and accelerates my breathing. These are not conditions in which I can with any accuracy assess what is going on around me. I need to find some way to slow my pulse and respiration, and that’s one of the things that encountering the past can do for me. It’s not the only way, but it’s a powerful way, and it gives me at once perspective and tranquility. Indeed it’s the tranquility that makes the perspective possible. It’s the slowing of my psychological and physiological responses that allows my mental targets to stabilize and come into clearer focus.
RK: It’s an interesting metaphor for me personally because as a kid I thought the biathlon was weird and kind of boring. Now I think it’s one of the most fascinating events in the Winter Olympics; the success of which, as you note, requires a kind of internal and external balance; extreme intensity mixed with supreme serenity. Obviously, we’re living in a time of extreme political tension; what you describe in Breaking Bread as information overload leading to perpetual triage. But where you argue that a charitable relationship with the past can help us achieve more serenity in the face of extreme intensity, so much of the narrative today is fueled by a categorical rejection of anything perceived as a past imperfection. You cite Milan Kundera’s lines about liquidating a people by destroying the past then inventing a new history. Do you think that kind of liquidation is currently underway?
AJ: Attempts at the complete erasure of the past are rare, the cardinal examples being the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, who declared Year Zero in the year we call 1975, and the still more radical work of the French revolutionaries, who not only restarted the calendar at Year One but also renamed the months, introduced decimal time and divided the whole of France into geometrically precise geographical units. What’s much more common is re-narrating the past in the service of our current understanding of things, or our current priorities, which is sometimes salutary, sometimes unfortunate and always inevitable.
This is getting away from the themes of my book, but when history is deliberately re-narrated, as in the New York Times’s 1619 Project, it is done in the belief that such re-narration will make the world more just in the future, when people are taught that narrative rather than some preceding one. This is an under-theorized, under-thought assumption, and I doubt that it’s true. The assumption stems from the deepest conviction of people who manipulate symbols for a living, which is that symbol manipulation is a powerful force for change. I think it rarely is, because the ability to manipulate symbols for the edification of others arises from some more substantive precedent power. (The real point of the French revolutionaries’ creation of new means of organizing time and space was to demonstrate absolute power.) The people working to register voters are, I strongly suspect, doing more to bring about social change than the 1619 Project ever will.
Similarly: iconoclasm—defacing monuments or tearing down statues—looks like action but in fact is just another form of symbol manipulation. It’s what you do when what grieves you is systemic racism—disproportionate incarceration rates, disproportionate poverty, disproportionate destruction of families—but you can’t see a way to address those problems directly and constructively. The statues come down, but all the Black men in jail stay there.
My skepticism about symbol manipulation is one of the reasons I focus on the experience of encountering voices from the past, and recognizing their humanity in all its strangeness, rather than on the development of new narratives of history that are supposed to effect change.
RK: I was struck by the foresight of your engagement with Frederick Douglass, whose own view of American history would find him out of step with the 1619 Project, and whose statue (in Rochester, New York) didn’t survive the summer of 2020. Where his famous Fourth of July speech is now quoted with regularity, it doesn’t appear that too many people are actually reading him beyond select phrases that fit a chosen narrative.
AJ: Hey, I merely wrote a self-help book, don’t try to get me into politics!
I’m not altogether kidding. I did indeed frame my entire case in personal terms: escaping the dire hose, increasing personal density, finding tranquility. I wrote the book for people who often feel miserably anxious and would like to feel less miserably anxious.
But of course I suspect, and I certainly hope, that people who have become more stably tranquil, and have done so by patiently encountering voices from the past in all their strangeness, will find themselves better able to deal with differences between themselves and their neighbors. Breaking bread with the dead is a kind of low-stakes training for breaking bread with the living.
In a way, I’m Mr. Miyagi and my reader is Daniel. Wax on, wax off. It appears to have no practical use, but maybe, just maybe, it does.
RK: Well, I think that weaves together a few things we’ve discussed. In that movie there are two competing visions of teaching a martial art: one emphasizes and amplifies its violent combativeness; the other emphasizes how a peaceable spirit increases one’s performative and competitive abilities. In Breaking Bread with the Dead, it seems to me you’re appealing for a kind of communion with old books that cultivates a wiser and more charitable form of communal possibility. If there are political implications to all this, they echo those of Vaclav Havel, who said that “politics is a matter of serving the community … it is morality in practice.”
AJ: The late and not universally lamented Andrew Breitbart seems to have been the first to utter the phrase “politics is downstream from culture,” and it’s a true saying. I think something like that is what Heaney has in mind in his poem “Sandstone Keepsake,” which I describe near the end of Breaking Bread with the Dead. On a beach of the Inishowen peninsula, overseen by British soldiers in their watchtowers, he looks in the shallow water for rocks and shells, and thinks about European history. “Stooping along” in his “scarf and waders,” he holds no interest for the soldiers—he is quite obviously “not about to set times wrong or right.” He is, rather, “one of the venerators”—and I think what matters is not the object of his veneration but the act of veneration, or, maybe better, simply being-as-veneration: he is not the sum of his political stances. He has them, of course, and they are present, though in somewhat obscured fashion, in the poem, but they are not freestanding, they arise from thoughts and commitments that precede the rivalries and depredations of the officially political. Sloshing slowly through the shallow waters, looking, remembering, meditating, he manifests a tranquility inconceivable to warriors and the bosses of warriors. And this is of course a powerfully political act.
RK: Right, so this models the habits of mind deeply informed by a life of reading that is simultaneously capable of conviction and contortion in the face of unpredictable and potentially violent life circumstances. I’m reminded of something Heaney said in a dialogue with another former professor of mine, Richard Kearney, about how Eastern European writers who’d had more firsthand experience with authoritarian oppression “take for granted that life will disappoint, that the roof is off the cottage of the universe.” For me, one of the principal virtues of Breaking Bread is that it’s a hopeful, even joyful, reminder not to despair when the roof blows off the cottage—something bound to happen in every era of human history. First, I wonder if you think that’s a fair characterization. And second, I’m interested to know if you’ve fielded hopeful responses from readers at a time when it certainly feels like the roof is blowing off the cottage.
AJ: Ah, you’ve uncovered one of the little secrets of the book: many of the people whom I hold up as examples of tranquility lived in anything-but-tranquil eras—eras that make our own seem, to steal a line from Auden, “crowned with olive / And golden with self-praise.” As we’ve noted, I close with Heaney wading in the sea, in the midst of the Troubles; but I begin with Horace, watching from a distance as the Roman Republic gives way to imperial rule, as he who had been Octavian strengthens his grip on power and names himself Caesar Augustus. In between, we see Frederick Douglass looking back towards the American founding even as the nation inches closer and closer to civil war; and a Hindu character in a novel seeking wisdom from a Moghul emperor of India while the violence of the Partition of India erupts around her; and the effervescent wit of Dorothy Osborne backdropped by the English Civil War and its unsettled aftermath. If all of them could make a healthy and gracious reckoning with the past in their stressful times, why can’t we?
I have indeed received some lovely messages from people who have, in my book, found encouragement to seek more personal density through extending their temporal bandwidth, who are grateful for the reminder to step out of the “dire hose.” But I haven’t heard from any such readers over the past few days. I write this response on the day after the United States’ Election Day, when nothing is yet settled except that the Democrats will continue to control the House of Representatives. Sometimes the present looms so largely and loudly before us that we simply can’t attend to anything else. We’re only human, after all.
RK: You and me both. I’ve done plenty of doomscrolling in the last 48 hours. Coincidentally, prior to reading Breaking Bread with the Dead, I made a conscious choice to shut down social media (where I think we saw an alarming acceleration of ideologically motivated propaganda), yearning for what you called a sense of neighborliness that comes from patient encounters with voices from the past; a “personal density” that isn’t overwhelmed by “information density.” But I will say, relative to the dirge of doom that populates our collective consciousness these days, my choice felt like the equivalent of putting a pinky finger on a roof that’s about to blow off the cottage. Has the kind of reading you’re appealing for ever been anything more than that; a private act of resistance to stem the tide of greed, abuse of power, oppression and idolatry, no matter the era?
AJ: I don’t want to reduce my whole book—my beautifully subtle, elegantly nuanced book!—to a couple of sound bites. But if I were so to reduce it, those sound bites would probably be:
1. The examined life continues to be worth living; and
2. You can’t live an examined life on social media.
There will always be people to pipe up and say that social media are just tools, tools that can be used for good or evil, yadda yadda yadda. But there aren’t as many such people as there used to be, because the claim has become harder and harder to sustain—harder even to take seriously. All technologies are characterized by affordances, by actions that they are designed to make easy and to feel natural. As Umberto Eco reminded Richard Rorty many years ago, you can redescribe a screwdriver as a tool for scratching your ears, but an even marginally thoughtful person would prefer, for example, a small flexible stick with cotton at its tips. Similarly, you can strive to be thoughtful and reasonable on Twitter, but no even marginally thoughtful person would try, because the affordances of the platform all work in the opposite direction.
The affordances of old books incline us towards patience, curiosity, reflection and considered judgment. Try to think of four traits we’re more desperately in need of.
Photo credit: Perspektivet Museum (CC / BY Flickr)