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    The Tranquility and Wisdom of Old Books

    Alan Jacobs talks with Plough’s Joy Clarkson about his book, Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind.

    By Alan Jacobs

    January 20, 2022
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    Interrogate the writings of the wise, asking them to tell you how you can get through life in a peaceable, tranquil way.”—Horace, Epistles


    Plough’s Joy Clarkson and Alan Jacobs discuss the comforts of reading Roman humorists in a world of hot takes and viral tweets, and the wonderful neighborliness of books.

    Joy Clarkson: Professor Jacobs, I’m excited to discuss your recent book Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind. What was the inspiration for that book?

    Alan Jacobs: That was a book I started thinking about as I was putting the final touches to an earlier book called How to Think, which came out in 2017. How to Think was a book that I wrote just as the presidential campaign of 2016 started to heat up. I saw people not thinking very well and getting really agitated and emotional and defensive and prone to mischaracterize the views of others. In my years of teaching, I have learned a lot about the ways in which thinking can go wrong and how those problems might be addressed. I thought this would be a good time for me to write, not so much as a scholar or a Christian, because those are ways in which I often write, but rather to think of myself primarily as a citizen and try to find a word that would be helpful to my fellow citizens at a time of increasing tension, anxiety, and anger.

    But even as I was finishing the book, one of the things that I felt I had neglected, at least to some extent, was what can be done to break the habits of instantaneous emotional response to whatever happens to be coming across your news feed. That was not getting better after 2016, but was, in fact, getting worse. Now it has reached a fever-pitch.

    One of the ways I sometimes describe this is to say that everyone who has ever had to raise children or deal with children knows that it really doesn’t work just to tell them, “No, don’t do X.” You need to be able to say, “Do Y instead. Do Z instead.” You need to be able to give them some alternatives to the annoying or dangerous thing that they’re doing. I think that is just as true of grownups as it is of kids. It’s one thing to say, “Don’t be on Twitter so much. Don’t be on Facebook much,” but what are you going to do instead? There are many things that you could do instead, but one that I think is especially useful is the consulting the voices from the past.

    Horace is an interesting case in point, because Horace was a guy who was really wrapped up in some fairly serious ways with Roman politics at a time when Roman politics was way more heated than our politics right now. He ended up making a new life for himself in the countryside. That’s where he was when he wrote Epistles, living away from Rome, not in the middle of all of the political disputes and political violence. Instead, he made time for himself to think.

    So he writes to his friends and says “Hey, try what I’m doing. Spend your time interrogating the thoughts of the wise. Converse with them. Debate with them. Listen to them and reflect on what they say. If you do that, then you can have a less agitated and more tranquil mind.” I think what he learned from experience is what I would like for a lot of people to learn as well. It is certainly something that has helped me, and something that I want to recommend to my fellow citizens. As things get more and more intense politically, there is a greater and greater need for stepping back and immersing yourself in something that is more likely to give you tranquility rather than an ulcer.

    dark purple and gold image of old books on a shelf

    Photograph by Gabriella Clare Marino (edited)

    I am in favor of increasing my likelihood of tranquility since my likelihood of ulcer is already pretty high. I love the way that Horace talks about the writings of the wise as this ongoing conversation, with people alive but also with wise thinkers in the past. I think that trains us to adopt a different mode of engaging with reality. It makes us realize that many of the things we get so agitated about now, people have been agitated about for, lo, thousands of years.

    But one of the things that stops people from engaging with writers from the past is this idea that every book from the past is “problematic,” that there will always be some element of racism or sexism. This can prevent us from seeking out or listening to the voices of the past, or to the voices of the wise, as Horace calls them. So what would you say to someone who has a suspicion of the thinkers from the past because of their positions on modern concerns?

    You’re right to say modern concerns, because we are so present-minded now. We think that the themes, issues, or questions of this particular moment are all we can think about. In 2017 there was a sense that if you were not talking about men in power abusing that power to take advantage of women, then you were really being irresponsible. Now, a few years later, if you’re not weighing in on the racial issues in our society, then you’re really, really irresponsible.

    But what if, two or three years ago, what you were really focusing on was racism in America? That would have been a totally legitimate thing to focus on. What if now you’re still focused on men abusing their power to dominate and sexually harass women? Because that’s still happening. That hasn’t stopped happening over the last two and a half years. But there is this enormous pressure toward unanimity. Everybody has to be talking about the same thing, which means that everybody has to drop the previous thing. We’re being driven by a version of what the Apostle Paul describes as being “blown about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14). It makes us focus with a maniacal intensity on just one particular thing, one particular way in which you can either be right or wrong, and there’s not anything in between. We’re not putting all of our concerns into play.

    On the other hand, people sometimes say that you have to set aside your own views to read the texts of the past and I don’t believe that either. I don’t think you should ever set aside your own views. Don’t just judge people according to one particular topic or one particular standard because that’s what everybody’s talking about right now. Instead, bring everything into play. Bring into play all the things that you care about, many of which people are not talking about right now. In that way, I think you can have a much richer conversation.

    So one way that Breaking Bread With the Dead can help us by adding complexity to our view of the world, helping us situate our modern concerns in the long conversation of history. But you also say that reading the voices of the past adds to our tranquility. How does reading do this?

    I think that there’s a lot of ways in which that happens, but maybe the chief one I would call attention to right now is that it’s extremely anxiety-producing to be blown about by every wind of doctrine. Whenever a new issue comes up and everybody’s like, “Take your side! Tell us where you stand on this! Silence is violence! Speak out!” It is incredibly anxiety-producing because you’re afraid you might say the wrong thing. You’re afraid that if you say the right thing by the lights of some people, you’ll be saying the wrong thing by the lights of somebody else. The enormous amount of peer pressure is just overwhelming. Human beings are social. We are made to be social. Most of us are incredibly tuned into the responses of others and to the approval or disapproval of others. There’s no way for us not to be affected by that in some way.

    However, when you get away from that moment-by-moment dynamic and encounter the voices from the past, you’re still making a human connection. You’re not by yourself. You’re in conversation with these people, but it’s a conversation over which you have some control and where the stakes are not as high as they are in our day-to-day social lives. If I’m reading Frederick Douglass, for instance, who is a significant figure in my book, Frederick Douglass isn’t going to rise up out of the book and tell me how wrong I am.

    Frederick Douglas is not going to rise up and cancel you.

    I’m not going to get canceled by Frederick Douglass. What I can do is I can read Frederick Douglass, think about what he’s saying, and then I can close the book, set it aside for a while and reflect on it. Or maybe I can write down my thoughts. Then I can come back to it and read it again and have second thoughts. The wonderful thing about books is how patient they are with us; they’re always there. You can pick them up and start reading them – they are very receptive to that. But if you set them down and walk away, they won’t complain. They’ll just wait. Then when you come back, they’re ready again.

    Whenever a new issue comes up and everybody’s like, “Take your side! Tell us where you stand on this! Silence is violence! Speak out!” It is incredibly anxiety-producing because you’re afraid you might say the wrong thing.

    There’s a funny old Jerry Seinfeld routine about how when you’re in middle school there’s always this kid who wants to earn your approval and is always happy to lend you anything that he has. He says “Here, you can borrow my bike” or whatever because he’s trying to earn your approval. Seinfeld says that libraries are like that. They’re like a publicly funded pathetic friend: “Come and borrow our books anytime. You can borrow them. You can keep them for a while. If you need to keep them longer, that’s fine. Just let us know.”

    There is that kind of humble generosity to libraries and books. They’re always ready to accommodate themselves to us. We have so much control over our encounters with books. If a book frustrates us, we can walk away. We can never pick it up again. We can take a book and throw it out the door if we want to. We can put it in the trash or we can just put it on the shelf and come back to it later, or we can just devour the whole thing. At times like that, we feel like we’re so caught up that we’re almost not choosing anymore. But we know at the back of our minds that we really do have some control over all of this and, as a result, it lowers our blood pressure.

    And it’s a human connection. A book can be an incredibly powerful conversation partner, but it enables us to deal with ideas in our own way and at our own pace. That’s especially important when the ideas are challenging to us or maybe even offensive to us. We can set a book aside, calm down, and come back to it and think about it and think about what our answer is to it.

    My view and my hope is that this mode of interaction with books can be a kind of training for dealing with our neighbors. A book is a temporary neighbor. I’ve written about this before, the idea that we should think of books as neighbors. Jesus says that we should love our neighbors as ourselves, and we should do that with books. But they are temporary neighbors and they don’t vote in the same elections that we vote in. And so, it’s easier to develop a generosity toward books. But if it’s harder to develop that generosity to our neighbors who do vote in the same elections that we vote in, and often vote in ways that we’d prefer them not to, maybe we can get a little better at dealing with that by a practice of tranquility: reading books.

    In C. S. Lewis’s lovely little book An Experiment in Criticism (1961) he talks about how a good work of literature demands that you give yourself over to it as fully as you can. That experience of givenness is so rare in our modern experience. We’re always in such a response-oriented, swift world, especially with social media, that we don’t often take that time to fully inhabit the world of a book, let ourselves think and be and ponder before we respond. It’s almost an antithesis of the practice of social media, where rapid response is expected. It’s being able to be in a long form, gentle, non-immediate conversation. Some books aren’t gentle. Some book neighbors do demand something of you, but in a way that, like you said, we have more control.

    I think this is important. This is not a theme of this current book, but it is a theme of my life in a lot of ways. I’ve often dealt with students who really feel that if they’re not reading great books, then they’re wasting their time. But I love to quote something that the poet W. H. Auden said: “When one thinks of the attention that a great poem demands, there is something frivolous about the notion of spending every day with one. Masterpieces should be kept for High Holidays of the Spirit.” They’re not meant for every day. You wouldn’t eat a seven-course French meal every day. It would kill you. A really great book is demanding. It wants you to give a full investment of your mind and your heart. And we’re not up for that every single day. After we’ve had that experience, we might want to recover by reading something just for fun and something that doesn’t place the same kind of demands on us.

    Whenever I get to the end of a semester where I’ve been teaching a lot of heavy stuff, I can’t wait to sit down and read something that’s light-hearted and that doesn’t make the same kind of demands on me. The first thing I do at the end of a semester is read a P. G. Wodehouse novel because I know that it’s going to be absolutely delightful and restorative. If you read nothing but really great books, you’re going to end up running out of the intensity and the focus that you’re going to need to read them well.

    In light of that, I would love to know: who are some of the voices of the past who are nourishing or enjoyable to you these days? Who are the writers to whom you feel drawn?

    Well, the writer who means the most to me is W. H. Auden. I encountered his work for the first time in a serious way in grad school, and it just changed the direction of my career and of my life in a lot of ways. He has been such a wonderful companion for me over the years and someone that I can just return to over and over again. There are things that you need for different situations. Sometimes I really need sanity, and when I need sanity, I go to Jane Austen. We just finished Mansfield Park in one of my classes, and it was just so wonderful to go back to that book which I think is the greatest of her novels, though not the most immediately appealing.

    Over the last few years, Horace has been especially important to me. He is this ironic, wry, civilized voice commenting on the follies of the great from some distance. Horace is a poet that I have always loved. Auden loved him. He really thought of himself as a modern Horatian. I fell in love with his work and I’ve been going back to it over and over again. I try to teach it from time-to-time. It’s hard to get twenty-year-olds to get Horace.

    Horace has been especially dear to me in recent years because the person that I talked with Horace about the most, who loved him in the same way that I love him, was my friend Brett Foster, a wonderful poet and scholar. He was one of my dearest friends and died a few years ago at the age of forty-two. I keep Brett’s old copy of Odes of Horace in David Ferry’s translation close to me on my desk. It’s full of notes from him and little scribbled pages of reflections in his quirky left-handed scribble. When I pick up this book, I feel like I’m not only having a conversation with Horace, but with Brett. I can’t have those conversations anymore. That’s why I both began this new book with Horace, but also dedicated it to the memory of Brett. For the rest of my life that encounter with Horace will always also be an encounter with him whom I miss so much.


    Listen to the audio interview:

    Contributed By

    Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program of Baylor University. He has published fifteeen books, and writes for publications such as the Atlantic, Harper's, the Christian Century, the New Yorker, and the Wall Street Journal.

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