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

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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.

About the Author


ALAN JACOBS is Distinguished Professor of Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University. He has published fifteen books and writes for publications such as The Atlantic, Harper's Magazine, The Christian Century, The New Yorker, and The Wall Street Journal.

Praise For…


"Jacobs is a proponent of difference and distance as a means of increasing perspective...when we pick up an old book, we know that 'another human being from another world has spoken to us.' That sense of appreciation may well be applied to the work of all writers, living and dead. There are many worlds, past and present, from which another may speak." –John Glassie, The Washington Post

"Alan Jacobs’s Breaking Bread With the Dead should be on everyone’s reading list in these times of what a friend of mine calls ‘disagreement-phobia’ on all sides in politics and life. Jacobs thoughtfully discusses the benefits of reading long-dead authors — even though Edith Wharton was an anti-Semite and David Hume a racist. In this way we practise encountering minds different, and sometimes objectionable, to our own, and find the good, useful and beautiful admixed with the difficult and repulsive. Right and left, young and old, we need this skill more than ever now.”—Naomi Alderman, The Spectator 

“Jacobs marshals an impressive body of evidence from writers as diverse as Horace and Zadie Smith to craft his argument for sympathetic engagement with sources whose ideas may seem strange, or even repulsive . . . At a time when many Americans, compelled by tragic events to confront a legacy of racism, 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 

“The ideas are stimulating . . . will give thoughtful readers a jumping-off point for further reflection.” Publishers Weekly 

"Breaking Bread with the Dead is concerned with the challenge, and personal benefit, of connecting with authors far from our own experience...Through a combination of examples and theoretical exposition, Jacobs argues that by engaging responsibly with long gone authors, we allow their voices to teach us...Jacobs is especially aware of the challenge of texts that don’t match our prejudices: We need not demonize them, nor relinquish our convictions, but should simply work to seek community with past thinkers. Our 'personal density’ is a matter of experiencing shared membership, across time and place, with other parts of humanity.”—Joshua P. Hochschild, First Things

“Alan Jacobs has given us a toolbox stocked with concepts that balance the pop of a self-help book with the depth of a college seminar. Breaking Bread With the Dead is an invitation, but even more than that, an emancipation: from the buzzing prison of the here and now, into the wide-open field of the past.” —Robin Sloan, author of Sourdough 

"A provocative self-help book that challenges conventional wisdom about why we read and where it can bring us. We are distracted and today our reading, from link to link, has left us light. We need engagement and most of all, we need the grounding and weight from knowing our past. This elegant book moved me, especially when it led me to rethink time with my mentors and how they taught me, to paraphrase Wordsworth, what to love and how to love. On so many pages, I found things I know I will carry forward.”—Sherry Turkle, Professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, best-selling author of Reclaiming Conversation and Alone Together

“Alan Jacobs captures the nervous joy of helping students discover that writers of "the long ago and far away" can mitigate the feeling of unmoored loneliness that afflicts so many young people today.  Never scolding or didactic, Breaking Bread with the Dead is a compassionate book about the saving power of reading, and a moving account of how writers of the past can help us cope in the frantic present.” —Andrew Delbanco, author of The War Before the War

“A beautiful case for reading old books as a way to cultivate personal depth in shallow times. Breaking Bread with the Dead is timely and timeless — the perfect ending to the trilogy Alan Jacobs began with The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction and continued with How To Think. I’ve stolen so much from these books. So will you.” —Austin Kleon, bestselling author of Steal Like An Artist


Product Details
ISBN: 9781984878403
ISBN-10: 1984878409
Publisher: Penguin Press
Publication Date: September 8th, 2020
Pages: 192