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Book Review | Breaking Bread with the Dead

A Petite Masterpiece!

Rating: 4 out of 4.
Publisher: Penguin Press (Hardcover)
Originally Published: 2020
Pages: 176
 Alan Jacobs

Alan Jacobs is a prolific author and a wide-ranging thinker. His new book Breaking Bread with the Dead is a testimony to his literary brilliance.

In a world awash with social media tsunamis, you need a counterweight to all the information overload. Thankfully, Jacobs’ enchanting book turns out to be just that – an apt antidote.

Breaking Bread with the Dead is exactly the book that you need to nourish your soul. It slows you down. It makes you introspect.

Alan Jacobs deserves applause for writing stellar prose. In fact, his writing mesmerized me so much that I read and reread several paragraphs in the book.

Ideally, I should be giving the following advice toward the end of this post, but if you are skimming this article, you may just miss it. So, here it is. Don’t rush through this book, read it at leisure. Savor every page, close your eyes, and let the lessons sink in.

Breaking Bread with the Dead

Tersely speaking, this book signifies the importance of reading old literature and how it elevates your understanding of the world.

Onslaught of Social Media

Anxiety and stress have colonized our minds, states Jacobs. More often than not, social media fuels these depressive tendencies and several other vices, too.

Jacobs calls this internet-induced madness, frenetic standstill. You are constantly in motion, but ultimately going nowhere. On one hand, it’s the sheer number of choices that drive us bonkers. On the other, it’s our hankering to be always connected online. Here’s the author on rejecting the internet-induced temptations:

“Navigating daily life in the internet age is a lot like doing battlefield triage. To avoid madness we must learn to reject appeals to our time, and reject them without hesitation or pity.”

To escape this ‘Tyranny of everyday anxieties, Jacobs proposes a solution: Read old books. For when you engage with the works of the past, you are dealing with differences. People with different experiences, outlooks, and ideas, can give you a perspective on your own moment.

Read old books to thicken your Temporal Bandwidth

He proposes that we learn from the great minds who walked the earth before us. Awareness of how people before us used to deal with certain situations enhances our personal density and temporal bandwidth (a phrase Jacobs borrows from the great, reclusive American novelist Thomas Pynchon).

Basically, the more you know about your past, the more well-poised you are to take on the present and future challenges. In other words, reading old literature can thicken the width of your wisdom.

“A person could best navigate the challenges of life by taking his or her bearings from famous figures from the past.”

He does admit, however, that escorting readers to the past is a hard sell and that he is writing this book for 2% who will take up this challenge.

Historical anecdotes galore

The book abounds in anecdotes of historical personalities who themselves looked back to the past to gain motivation.

Machiavelli and Plutarch, in particular, found solace in communion with great figures of their past. Machiavelli with philosophers and poets, and Plutarch with emperors and warriors. Jacobs asserts

“A man cut off from the past is unjustly disinherited.”

The need to have a deep understanding of the past also arises from the modern-day readers’ kneejerk tendency to disavow anything that doesn’t fit in with the dominant concerns of the moment.

It’s not news that social media helps in propagating half-truths and disinformation. Today’s social-feed craving audience, for the lack of temporal bandwidth, will jump all over once-revered personalities even on account of dubious provocations.

Lack of reverence to the authors from the past

In recent times, several incidents have brought to light how volatile the modern-day reader has become. Some of the historical figures that have come in for heavy criticism and that are mentioned in the book include Daniel Defoe, William Shakespeare, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, George Washington, and many more.

About this lack of reverence to the past, Jacobs remarks “…as if all history hitherto is at best a sewer of racism, sexism, homophobia, and social injustice.”

He goes on to say that when you pick up an old book, you transport yourself to a long-gone author’s world. It’s not the other way around. If you disagree with him/her on something, you don’t have to bring it back to the present. You can shun it.

When looking at figures from the past, says Jacobs, look at the whole person. Don’t let that one odd piece of writing define them. At the same time, he maintains that reading old literature doesn’t mean you have to shut down your critical faculties.

Breaking Bread with the Dead

By all means, you should critique and question the unpalatable stuff. But to react and trash a book on the basis of something that was said or done years ago and no longer fits the contemporary context, borders on shortsightedness. Here’s more on it from Jacobs:

“We should judge characters from the past in precisely the same way we judge characters of our own time.”

See, books are like friends. And when you are having a conversation with your friends, it’s always a two-way thing. You don’t only want to hear from your friend, you’d want to contribute, too.

“When we speak our thought, we want more than agreement, we want addition: we want our friend to develop that thought or push back at it.”

It’s this constant ideological tugging that makes Breaking Bread with the Dead such a riveting read.

Final Thoughts

Alan Jacobs unabashedly dubs the book as a self-help book. I disagree. I think it’s way more philosophical and profound than an average self-help book.

At first, the scope of the book seems impossibly large, but Jacobs beautifully distills his subject by weaving together historical accounts that both capture your attention and entertain you.

If you remove notes and bibliography, Breaking Bread with the Dead runs to 162 pages. In that sense, it’s a petite book. However, its 9 chapters teem with rich, thought-provoking content.

The erstwhile Roman poet Horace inspires Jacobs. Two thousand years ago, confused and disillusioned by the hubbub in Rome, Horace had retired to the countryside to attain peace of mind.

But for the modern generation – the bewitched captives of multiple screens – moving to a farm may not present a viable option even if they long for it deep down inside. To those struggling to gain tranquility, Jacobs proposes reading old books and connecting with the past.

I sign off with my favorite Alan Jacobs quote from Breaking Bread with the Dead:

“One day you’ll wake up and wonder how you ended up where you are, where you never wanted to be, where you’d rather not be.”

©BookJelly. All rights reserved


  1. Wonderful review. Have not heard of this author though. But your review has persuaded me to check him out.

    1. Sure, Aniket. Alan Jacobs is a gifted writer – you can’t go wrong with any of his books.

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