Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind

Alan Jacobs
Penguin Press, 192 pages

Alan Jacobs wants us to listen to the dead — and for good reason. By reading the books of those who have gone before, he eloquently argues that we will gain greater perspective on the present moment and, as a result, a tranquil mind. It is by listening to ancient voices that we are freed from the narrow bounds of “presentism,” which tends toward despair, into vast company of persons with whom we may agree or disagree. “Presentism,” argues Jacobs, is one consequence of information overload that creates the sense of being overwhelmed and necessitates triage. Not only is the past ignored, it is in some way defiled, considered inferior. Our “temporal bandwidth” expands greatly by engaging history and reading closely the books of the dead. “Personal density” is another way of speaking about the wisdom that comes when we belong to a much wider company of people, including the dead.

Within this frame, Jacobs takes the reader on a reading tour across the centuries. On this tour, we discuss the merits and limits of the current practice of “canceling” those persons and voices who violate our sensibilities. What might we learn when we engage those who speak from within their cultures across generations to our own? “It is in agreeing to a continuation with the past, not in pronouncing a universal verdict either for or against … that we increase our personal density.” Jacobs is a thoughtful guide with an encouraging voice. I wondered why this is in the self-help category. That seems odd. I came away with a sense of hope and a desire to listen more carefully to those who have gone before us. That is enormously helpful.