1️⃣ Sentence Synopsis
Jacobs argues that engaging meaningfully with the writings of the past – the strange, the uncomfortable, the profound – can help ease the anxieties of modern life.
I picked this up on an Barnes and Noble summer run a couple years ago, looking for books to freshen up some lectures on introducing literary analysis. I ended up sitting in the aisle, reading the first 20 pages of this book, and knew I should probably buy it (even though it wasn’t particularly suited for the task at hand). It’s a good read, and a solid argument, for reading widely in the face of uncertain times. There are also an inordinate amount of research-breadcrumbs and intriguing anecdotes that are woven into the crisp, engaging prose (see “Brain Tickles” below for a selection).
🔑 Key Takeaways
- It is important to see the past for its “treasures more than its threats” – and that these “treasures” can guide us in an age of information overload, social acceleration, and algorithmic marketing.
- “Informational triage” is a modern necessity – the ability to quickly filter through massive amounts of information so we can be “ruthless” in how we “deploy our attention.” And part of our strategy should be to read the “classics.”
- The key to a tranquil mind is increasing “personal density” – a term coined by Thomas Pynchon – that is “directly proportional to temporal bandwidth”. Our connectedness to the ancient, and the perspective in lends, are vital to increasing density so we can transcend the moments of our newsfeeds to ground ourselves in a “bigger time.”
- Young people and children should be exposed to older art and that for which they are not the intended audience so that they can “find value and pleasure in something that wasn’t necessarily made for them.”
- Encountering texts from the past is a relatively non-threatening way to engage with difference, especially that which runs counter to our current sensibilities.
- The great figures of the past provide models for both those who want an active life and a contemplative one.
💯 Strong Lines
- On using the classics to future-cast: “To read old books is to get an education in possibility for next to nothing.”
- John Dewey (in Democracy and Education, 1916), on navigating information overload: “A society which is mobile, which is full of channels for distribution of a change occurring anywhere, must see to it that its members are educated to personal initiative and adaptability. Otherwise, they will be overwhelmed by the changes in which they are caught and whose significance or connections they do not perceive. The result will be a confusion in which a few will appropriate to themselves the results of the blind and externally directed activities of others.”
- On the past: “The past the ties us to people in ways that hurt also ties us to people in ways that make healing possible. Sometimes we wish that the past could be over; sometimes we are grateful that it is not.”
- On judging historic figures with modern understandings: “…We are all inconstant and changeable, we all shy away from the full implications of our best and strongest ideas. Why should Washington and Jefferson and Milton have been any different? We should not be surprised that they failed to live up their ideals; we should, I think, be surprised that in their time and place they upheld such ideals at all.”
- On religious texts and their presumed timelessness: “…the ability to transcend temporal and cultural distance is one of the primary traits that makes a sacred text sacred.”
- On reading and identification: “…power arises in some cases from likeness—from the sense that that could be me speaking—and from difference—that is someone very different from me speaking. For mental and moral health we need both.”
- On the relative comprehension of old texts and their authors: “These complications of perception are essential to the value of reading the past – they are the chief means, I think, by which, increasing or temporal bandwidth, increases our personal density. Yes, there is a cost of this, and we have to fight or triage instincts to get to the point of experiencing, along with the people of the past, the choices that shaped their lives. We see their moral frames, continually coming in and out of focus: at one moment, we feel that we know them intimately, and at the next, scarcely at all.”
- On our instinctive responses to what we read: “This testing of our responses against those of our ancestors is an exciting endeavor – a potentially endless table conversation, though, again, one we can suspend at any time….As Leslie Jamison says, that tension crackles and sparks. And the sparks produce both light and warmth.”
🧠 Brain Tickles
- Climate change, as a theme, is relatively rare in contemporary fiction (Amitav Ghosh’s observation from The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable); while “cli-fi” does exist, it usually looks dystopically to the future rather than dealing with the here and now.
- German Sociologist Gerd-Günter Voss’s three ways to “conduct life”: 1) traditional – your life takes the form of the lives of those who came before, in alignment with your culture, class and context 2) strategic – your life is based on goals and strategic plans to get them 3) situational – less likely to “plan out” anything (a particular career, having children, settling in one place) as there is accelerated change and this is one way of coping with that reality. From Rosa’s Social Acceleration, pp. 236-237.
- Alyssa Vance’s distinction between “positive” and “negative” selection – when you’re in the selection business, you can focus on what candidates are able to do or unable to do—and, academia in particular is built upon “negative” selection (in admissions, tenure, promotion).
- Julian Baggini’s argument to read the past – and controversial thinkers such as Kant and Hume – with an understanding that “none of these figures had the good fortune to be confronted with eloquent proponents of opposing views.” And, this in turn, should make us all the more admiring of other thinkers – Wollstonecraft and Douglass, for example – who were able to cut their way through thickets of convention that “so reliably trap ordinary folks—and sometimes even great geniuses.”
- Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking, a book that argues for “generosity as an enduring habit of mind, a conversational practice.” I think it might connect nicely to Kline’s Time to Think.
- Brian Eno’s “Big Here and Long Now” thinking – “big here” is spatial bandwidth (learning languages, reading books in translation, seeking to understand other cultures), and “here now” is in recognition that every moment is grown from the past and a seed for the future.
- Donna Zuckerberg’s journal Eidolon, and her research into the resurgence of Stoic philosophy in the manosphere.
- Loving the aside on futurists (pg. 144) in the discussion of Wendell Barry’s “Standing by Words” (1980) where he compares them to the “projectors” of Gulliver’s Travels: “… men who appear to be meaningfully related to the future, but are in fact wholly self-absorbed….Their imagined world is devoid of actual persons and much of the rest of creation as well.” The key distinction is between projecting and promising: “The ‘projecting’ of ‘futurologists’ uses the future as the safest possible context for whatever is desired; it binds one to selfish interest. But making a promise binds one to someone else’s future.”
- Paul Connerton’s How Modernity Forgets.
🍎 Ideas and Excerpts for Teaching and Learning
There are a lot of anecdotes and excerpts that feel relevant to teaching; here are a sampling:
- Italo Calvino’s concept of “your classics” – books that take on a particular status for a particular reader…Jacobs defines it further, “…a book becomes a classic for you in part because of its power to compel you to hear something that you not only hadn’t thought but might not believe, or might not want to belief. In this sense a book can become very much like a friend.”
- The discussion of Plutarch’s comparative studies model (in his case, of Roman and Greek military figures) that provided an educational framework for the whole of Western Europe for centuries.
- Niccolò Machiavelli on the solace of ancient texts: “When evening has come, I return to my house and go into my study. At the door I take off my clothes of the day, covered with mud and mire, and I put on my regal and courtly garments; and, decently reclothed, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them lovingly, I feed on the food that alone is mine and that I was born for. There I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their humanity reply to me. And for the space of four hours I feel no boredom, I forget every pain, I do not fear poverty, death does not frighten me.”
- Patrocinio Schweickart’s “Reading Ourselves: Toward a Feminist Theory of Reading” and the recommendation of looking for a “utopian moment” or “authentic kernel” where something deeply beautiful and human emerges even in the midst of patriarchal muck.
- A resurfacing of Kipling’s famous poem, “The Gods of Copybook Headings,” and in particular, this stanza: With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch / They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch, / They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings, / So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.
- The extended discussion of Seamus Heaney’s “Sandstone Keepsake” at the beginning of chapter 9. would make a lovely mini-lesson on poetic allusions.
- The discussion (pp. 154-155) of Paul Kingsnorth’s describing his visit to the Salon Noir, and asking questions that might be asked of any text, artifact or work of art: Why did these people, some fifteen thousand years ago, paint animals, and paint them with such (apparently) loving attention? What was the world, to them, and what spirits haunted it? What stories did they tell about their place here, about the past and the present? Who, what, did they think they were?