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Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader's Guide to a More Tranquil… (2020)

de Alan Jacobs

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1652138,339 (4.13)4
"At a time when many Americans . . . are engaged in deep reflection about the meaning of the nation's history [this] is an exceptionally useful companion for those who want to do so with honesty and integrity." --Shelf Awareness From the author of How to Think and The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, a literary guide to engaging with the voices of the past to stay sane in the present W. H. Auden once wrote that "art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead." In his brilliant and compulsively readable new treatise, Breaking Bread with the Dead, Alan Jacobs shows us that engaging with the strange and wonderful writings of the past might help us live less anxiously in the present--and increase what Thomas Pynchon once called our "personal density." Today we are battling too much information in a society changing at lightning speed, with algorithms aimed at shaping our every thought--plus a sense that history offers no resources, only impediments to overcome or ignore. The modern solution to our problems is to surround ourselves only with what we know and what brings us instant comfort. Jacobs's answer is the opposite: to be in conversation with, and challenged by, those from the past who can tell us what we never thought we needed to know. What can Homer teach us about force? How does Frederick Douglass deal with the massive blind spots of America's Founding Fathers? And what can we learn from modern authors who engage passionately and profoundly with the past? How can Ursula K. Le Guin show us truths about Virgil's female characters that Virgil himself could never have seen? In Breaking Bread with the Dead, a gifted scholar draws us into close and sympathetic engagement with texts from across the ages, including the work of Anita Desai, Henrik Ibsen, Jean Rhys, Simone Weil, Edith Wharton, Amitav Ghosh, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Italo Calvino, and many more. By hearing the voices of the past, we can expand our consciousness, our sympathies, and our wisdom far beyond what our present moment can offer.… (més)
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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. ( )
1 vota BobonBooks | Apr 11, 2021 |
This is an excellent exploration of the way reading voices from the past can help us cultivate what the author calls "personal density." We can learn from writers who are not our contemporaries because their blindspots are different than ours, and they can help us learn to view our own immediate context with a more critical eye. I listened to this one on Audible, but I will definitely have to go back and listen again or buy the book in print (or both) because I feel like there was more here than I was able to absorb in a single reading. Highly recommend. ( )
1 vota amy_reasoner | Apr 6, 2021 |
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Informació del coneixement compartit en anglès. Modifica-la per localitzar-la a la teva llengua.
In Memory of Brett Foster (1973-2015)
All of these afflictions, petty in
Love's gargantuan light,
provide a most ripe tinder to
raise love's fire further.
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I've been a teacher for many years now, and one of the best things about teaching is the way it presses you to revisit decisions you made in decades past, to defend and explain actions that for you long ago ceased to need defense or explanation.
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"At a time when many Americans . . . are engaged in deep reflection about the meaning of the nation's history [this] is an exceptionally useful companion for those who want to do so with honesty and integrity." --Shelf Awareness From the author of How to Think and The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, a literary guide to engaging with the voices of the past to stay sane in the present W. H. Auden once wrote that "art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead." In his brilliant and compulsively readable new treatise, Breaking Bread with the Dead, Alan Jacobs shows us that engaging with the strange and wonderful writings of the past might help us live less anxiously in the present--and increase what Thomas Pynchon once called our "personal density." Today we are battling too much information in a society changing at lightning speed, with algorithms aimed at shaping our every thought--plus a sense that history offers no resources, only impediments to overcome or ignore. The modern solution to our problems is to surround ourselves only with what we know and what brings us instant comfort. Jacobs's answer is the opposite: to be in conversation with, and challenged by, those from the past who can tell us what we never thought we needed to know. What can Homer teach us about force? How does Frederick Douglass deal with the massive blind spots of America's Founding Fathers? And what can we learn from modern authors who engage passionately and profoundly with the past? How can Ursula K. Le Guin show us truths about Virgil's female characters that Virgil himself could never have seen? In Breaking Bread with the Dead, a gifted scholar draws us into close and sympathetic engagement with texts from across the ages, including the work of Anita Desai, Henrik Ibsen, Jean Rhys, Simone Weil, Edith Wharton, Amitav Ghosh, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Italo Calvino, and many more. By hearing the voices of the past, we can expand our consciousness, our sympathies, and our wisdom far beyond what our present moment can offer.

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