A Feature Review of
Breaking Bread with the Dead:
A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind
Reviewed by Al Brooke
“To read with intelligent charity.”
– Alan Jacobs, A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love (2001).
“Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”
– C.S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books,” God in the Dock 217 (2014).
As a society we are reconsidering our relationship to the past.
We wonder whether statues, schools and flags should be removed, renamed or redesigned because of their association with causes, people and history which we now find evil, embarrassing or repugnant. We wonder about the past.
And we are besieged by the present.
We are tossed to and fro by the relentless flood of now. Every news report claims our attention, every tweet demands our view, every story grabs our heart. There is no time for reflection on the past or the future. Are we doomed to flutter in the winds of today?
Alan Jacobs suggests that we may resist our tendency to “presentism” by interacting with the past—without deference or disdain—but in neighborliness and even love.
Breaking Bread with the Dead is the product of Alan Jacobs’ three-and-a-half decades of teaching literature at Wheaton College and Baylor University. He has written
I think of this book as the conclusion of my Pedagogical Trilogy, the first volume of which was The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction and the second of which was How to Think. Finding delight in reading, learning to think well in opposition to all the social forces that impede thinking, drawing on the wonderfully diverse intellectual resources of the past — these three themes encapsulate much of what I have tried to teach my students for the past thirty-five years. (“Breaking Bread with the Dead,” Snakes and Ladders – Oct. 26, 2018).
The book’s title is from W.H. Auden:
“Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.” Breaking bread is at the heart of this project: sitting at table with our ancestors and learning to know them in their difference from, as well as their likeness to, us. (27)
A surface reading of Auden’s words suggests that as we interact with books, art and music by reading, viewing or listening, we have table fellowship with the past (for from our vantage all art is past). Our approach may be charitable or critical, but the conversation is essentially uni-directional. We visit at the table to listen, not to teach.
Jacobs suggests that by interacting with the past we gain sufficient weight to resist the tendency to “presentism”:
You need the personal density that will hold you firmly until, in your considered and settled judgment, it is time to move. And to acquire the requisite density you have to get out of your transitory moment and into bigger time. Personal density is proportionate to temporal bandwidth. (23)
He urges us to avail ourselves of the opportunity to have community with the past by reading literature and history.
And yet, the people of the past are so strange! They offend our sense of what is right with their unreconstructed prejudices, and even when they aspire to great moral heights, they astound us with their moral shortcomings. (Witness the recent backlash against Lin-Manuel Miranda for failing to sufficiently call out the slave-holders Washington and Jefferson in Hamilton—many an uncle has been banished from the Thanksgiving table for lesser offenses.)
It is that strangeness which threatens to break fellowship with the past. Jacobs writes:
If we cannot break bread with our contemporaries who violate our political commitments—whose views seem so alien and wrong that to share a meal with them feels like a kind of defilement—then it would seem that asking us to break bread with the dead is a futile act indeed. But perhaps not.
The dead, being dead, speak only at our invitation: they will not come uninvited to our table. . . . What the dead we encounter in books demand is only . . . our attention, which we are free to withhold.
My plea is that we do not withhold it, that we use our power to give them utterance. We can always, if they shock or offend us too greatly, turn aside and render them silent again. And there is a good chance that they will shock us. (29)
Jacobs cautions us against “our resistance to the voices of those who came before us,” but he does not ask that we withhold judgment as we read:
The decisions of our ancestors, however strange those people may be to us, touch us and our world; and our decisions will touch the lives of those who come after us. By understanding what moved them and what they hoped for, we give ourselves a better chance of acting wisely—in some cases, as those ancestors did; in others, as they didn’t. We judge them, as we should, as we must; but if we judge them fairly and proportionately, as we ourselves hope someday to be judged, then we may use them well with an eye toward the future. (143-144)
In his conclusion, Jacobs suggests:
When we own our kinship to those people, they may come alive for us not just as exemplars of narrowness and wickedness that we have overcome, but as neighbors and even as teachers. When we acknowledge that even when they go far astray they do so in ways that we surely would have, had we been formed as they were, we extend them not just attention but love, the very love that we hope our descendants will extend to us. The argument that I have made here for the cultivation of personal density is also an argument for serving as links in the living chain that extends into the distant past and also into the distant future. It is an argument for a genealogy of love. (151)
This argument is one which we would do well to hear.
This book is far more than I hint at here, and Jacobs darts easily between literature, theory, philosophy, politics, criticism and exhortation. Horace, Harry Potter, Tom Wolfe, C.V. Wedgewood, Jacob, Jean Rhys, R.A. Lafferty, Rousseau, Rudyard Kipling, Keats, Kant, Tolkien, Terence, John Stuart Mill, John Milton, Schliemann, Shakespeare, Cincinnatus, Simone Weil, Wendell Berry, W.E.B. Du Bois, Fredrick Douglass, Dorothy Osborne, Christopher Hitchens, Nora Helmer, Henry of Almain, Seamus Heaney, Henrik Ibsen and Epictetus—all find voice within these pages.
Alan Jacobs’s Breaking Bread with the Dead is a delight and an education.