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Publisher's Summary

“At a time when many Americans ... 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)

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 listenable 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.

©2020 Alan Jacobs (P)2020 Penguin Audio

Critic Reviews

“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, best-selling author of Steal Like an Artist

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

What listeners say about Breaking Bread with the Dead

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Title is wrong.

I am a fan of Mr. Jacob's, but this book is a let down. The title would lead you to believe you will get some insight into past writers for tranquility of mind . This book talks about everything but. Everything from arranged marriages to microaggressions to a unfocused and disjointed chapter about Stoicism and " red pills" . From the title you would think you would get a exploration of past writers from Montainge to Seneca ... this is just a rambling unfocused hodgepodge. Hope his next effort is better than this because he is a fantastic writer. I may hold off on the preorder though.

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What reading old books can teach us.

This is an outstanding book. It addresses many issues that are relevant to us today. The perils of presentism are treated fairly and thoroughly in these pages, but perhaps not in the way you would expect (based on the mindless culture wars of 2020 America). The author does not ask us to leave our assumptions and moral beliefs at the door (an almost impossible task). He doesn’t ask us to embrace the worldview of those we read about and with, or translate their worldview to our world today. He simply asks us to break bread with those who have gone before.

Breaking bread with someone means you are sharing a meal with them. You are extending a hand of fellowship to them. You are saying “come dine with me and let me learn about you, and learn with you.” This book is a pleasure to read, and I won’t enumerate the things I learned while reading it. I will simply say this book is worthy of your time. Alan Jacobs is a masterful essayist and has given me an abundance of material to think about. I’m hoping that reading this book will help shape the way I go about my reading, making it both more enjoyable and fulfilling.

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A display of the most humane kind of reading.

I just completed listening to this book. My experience of it was a collection of types of a kind of reading that is deeply devotional, literary, and full of mess and mystery of the best kind. I’ve heard others commentary on it as seeming to not have a thread that draws it together according to its title. I would disagree. My experience of it was a narrative of a man’s wrestling match and how history and words, on pages, ancient and new, have answered his wrestling and helped him through. I am delighted. Breaking Bread with the Dead by Alan Jacobs

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quite good advice

The third in a series for improving one's thinking, this volume provides excellent advice on how to work around the limitations imposed by ones place in history and the prevailing ways of thinking.

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Thoughtful guide for relating to dead people

This is a charming and intelligent discussion about how to respect and "listen" to both the living and the dead.