Breaking bread with the dead is not a scholarly task to be completed but a permanent banquet, to which all who hunger are invited.Alan Jacobs, Breaking Bread with the Dead
One of the ongoing debates that picks up steam every now and then is whether we should have high school students read old books in school (this WSJ opinion piece was everywhere recently and the #DisruptTexts tag on Twitter is on fire). Of course, a lot of the impetus behind this is to replace the canon of old dead white guys with a more diverse set of authors and subjects, but I can’t help but think another reason is because adults don’t really read old books anymore either. I mean, do adults even read anymore?
Alan Jacobs thinks we should, and thinks we should also read old books. “Breaking bread with the dead” is provocative phrasing that sounds much weirder than it actually is. Breaking bread is a common term, maybe especially in Christian circles (though this is not an explicitly Christian book) for sharing table fellowship – for sharing a meal and conversation with someone. Jacobs suggests we should see reading old books as an opportunity to join their authors for table fellowship.
Why would we do this? Jacobs actually has a fairly compelling argument, more convincing, probably, than my usual “because it’s good for you and also fun!!” reasoning. Taking an idea from Thomas Pynchon, he argues that expanding our temporal bandwidth increases our personal density – in other words, increasing our understanding of humanity over time (temporal bandwidth) increases our own weightiness, our own ability to stand up to every breeze that blows in our accelerated and windblown culture. For the Christians in the room, this of course brings to mind Ephesians 4:
And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, 13 till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; 14 that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, 15 but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ— 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.Ephesians 4:11-16, NKJV
Paul is speaking specifically of staying grounded in the Word of God to avoid heresy, but I do believe that the idea is broadly applicable to life in general. It’s very easy, especially on social media, to get swept up with whatever the topic of outrage du jour is, and sometimes outrage is justified, but how quickly do we get swept on to the next one at a moment’s notice. And how often are we so buried in our own bubbles that we can barely see outside them, much less understand how different viewpoints have shifted throughout history rather than just since last week. Jacobs argues that it is precisely encounters with difference that give us more perspective and more focus for the present.
Jacobs takes up several objections – notably how to deal with the fact that we honestly and in many cases appropriately have major issues with viewpoints common to the past. Like racism and sexism to name two huge ones. His response won’t be enough, likely, for the #DisruptText crowds, but as an already-committed old book apologist, I found it quite useful – don’t discount our objections, but also don’t use those objections to dismiss an entire book/author. They’re complex human beings, just like we are, and because we rightfully denounce their racism doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them in some other way.
Besides increasing our personal density, Jacobs also recommends approaching this table fellowship thinking of the old writers as our neighbors. We don’t always agree with our neighbors. Sometimes we may vehemently disagree with them. Jacobs suggests that learning to engage strange and even sometimes repugnant ideas in books, where we have control over the encounter, is a relatively safe and stress-free way to “practice” engaging our actual real-life neighbors. Ultimately, he hopes we can treat our ancestors as well as our contemporaries and descendents with a spirit of generosity and love – a genealogy of love continuing throughout the generations.
One pushback I can make on the book is he doesn’t really address the value of reading cross-culturally among modern writers rather than reading cross-temporally. This question was actually asked of him during a podcast I listened to, and his response was basically that yes, reading cross-culturally is a great idea and definitely contributes to our personal density, but that reading old books still probably does it more just because our modern world is so globally oriented that even though there are plenty of cultural differences, they aren’t actually as great as the difference between modern culture and, say, Ancient Greek culture, or even Medieval European culture. I would’ve liked to have seen that idea explored in more detail in the actual book. Especially since we inherit our current dominant white culture from these cultures – maybe they’re more different than they are similar, but I can easily see a #DisruptTexts advocate finding this a hard proposition to swallow. Maybe a sequel!
As someone who doesn’t need to be convinced to read old books, I appreciated metaphors like the one I quoted at the top, which took my thinking slightly off his topic, but still relevant to reading widely. The idea of good books and culture in general being a feast echoes Charlotte Mason’s philosophy about spreading a feast for students in terms of offering them lots of great literature, music and art, letting them play in nature, etc. Not everyone will like everything, but everyone’s invited to the feast to browse and enjoy. If we can see and present old books like this, as a feast to enjoy rather than an assignment to dread or a checklist to complete, perhaps breaking bread with the dead would be more enticing for more people.
Like many books about reading, I do suspect this one will largely end up preaching to the choir. Most people who aren’t interested in reading at all, or reading old books in particular, are unlikely to pick this up. Those of us who are interested are likely nodding along in agreement all the way through, not needing to be convinced of his thesis. But I think his arguments on every point give those of us who think the value of reading old books should be self-evident do give us some good arguments for the challengers we run into ourselves, and for that I am very grateful.
Book 2 of 2021 for me. I won’t review everything, and not necessarily in order.