What’s the worth of reading old books in a time like ours? In his latest book, Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind, Dr. Alan Jacobs argues that inviting thinkers from the past to have a seat at our intellectual table will cultivate the habits of discipline and breadth of perspective necessary to flourish in the present.
For the last seven years, Dr. Jacobs has served as Distinguished Professor of Humanities in Baylor’s Honors Program. He works primarily in the Great Texts department where his courses include 18th and 19th Century Great Texts, 20th Century Great Texts, and Great Texts in Christian Spirituality. Three of his prior books include The Narnian: The Imagination of C.S. Lewis; The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction; and How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds.
In much of his work, Dr. Jacobs considers how to engage thoughtfully and responsibly in the public square, troubled as it is. Breaking Bread with the Dead continues this endeavor as Jacobs demonstrates that sincere engagement with works of old and ancient literature equips readers with the virtues of thought and character necessary to weather the storms of modern public life.
“When you are engaged with the works of the past, you are dealing with difference. You are dealing with people whose whole world is different from yours…. It is training in encountering difference,” Dr. Jacobs explained during a recent interview with the D.C. based Trinity Forum. Reading old novels allows readers to encounter controversial perspectives through the comforting mediation of a book. Encountering old-fashioned and even morally reprehensible ideas fortifies and expands the “temporal bandwidth” of readers, equipping them with frameworks of understanding beyond the clamoring bewilderment of the present moment.
Further, Dr. Jacobs pointed out that reading old books can even result in moral formation. “I would really encourage you to think of treating books as your neighbors and encountering them as practice for loving your more immediate neighbors. If you think of it as a kind of training in charity, then encountering old books can be even more enriching to you.”
Jacobs’s insight into the role of literature in virtue formation fills the life of the mind with dignity and moral significance. If the intellect can be used to develop character and moral excellence, then individuals, and followers of Jesus especially, should labor toward this worthwhile end. Amid the trends of prioritizing technical education, employment skills, and ideological conformity, universities risk creating a vacuum for deep moral education. What, then, might be our counter-cultural obligation as a Christian university or as a Christian student? Let Christians eagerly seek out difficult ideas, humbly listen to unfamiliar perspectives, and diligently study the wisdom of the past, trusting that intellectual excellence, by the grace of God, may be transformed into patience, charity, and hope.