Breaking Bread with the Dead

A Reader's Guide to a More Tranquil Mind

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My first book in over a year from the ILL folks at the University Near Here. They got it from the Greenwich (CT) Library. I wasn't allowed to go into Dimond Library for a pickup, it's still forbidden territory for people not in UNH's "testing protocol". So they sent it to Pun Salad Manor via UPS.

Well, that's enough about my life's minor irritations.

This short book (with small pages and wide margins) is from Professor Alan Jacobs, and I'm used to his engaging style by now. He doesn't beat you over the head with his deep understanding of millennia's worth of literature (although it's apparent); instead, he's providing friendly advice, take it or leave it.

The specific advice here is: read old books. "Breaking bread with the dead" is a phrase from W. H. Auden, advocating turning our mind to art from yesteryear. The goal is to tune out today's constant clamor for our attention, and instead increase our bandwidth to the past. The subtitle claims this is a path to "a more tranquil mind". OK, maybe. My mind was already pretty tranquil. But the point is to view our reading as an opportunity to chow down with the greats of the past.

That's not without peril. The wrong way to do it is encountered early on with an anecdote about a student (someone else's student) who started to read Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. And literally threw the book out, due to Wharton's apparent antisemitism. What's wrong? The student viewed Wharton as an invited guest into his literary salon, and when she behaved badly, she was tossed out.

A better way to view it: you're a guest in Wharton's world. You might see things you despise, but you might better approach them with understanding (without acceptance). Learn to deal with difference.

Later in the book, there's a good example: Frederick Douglass, specifically his 1852 speech "What, To The Slave, Is The Fourth Of July". Douglass considers the Declaration's signers to be "brave men", "great men". But the blessings of liberty they brought were not for folks like Douglass. So he was forced to say "The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn."

Douglass regarded the Declaration with clear eyes, and helps us see it through his.

Anyway: plenty of other examples, some hilarious. There's extended quoting from Rosseau's epistolary novel Julie, which (it's claimed) was the biggest best-seller of the 18th century. And is totally obscure today. (When you read the excerpts, you might add: "with good reason".) Still, Jacobs draws an interesting lesson from the characters' musings on their states.

I don't think I've done a good job of summary here. Jacobs' discussion is deep and dense. I don't know if I can follow his path, but he definitely had me considering adding more old stuff to my to-be-read stacks.


Last Modified 2021-06-13 7:21 AM EST