Reading Old Books and Why It Matters
It’s been said a thousand times: we are living through an age of information overload. Day in and day out, we’re confronted with content that bears little to no resemblance to that of yesterday; day in and day out, we’re faced with images that have little to no relevance to the tangible events that transpire throughout our day. The onslaught of information and content can happen anywhere. You can be bombarded while you’re waiting for your coffee, or while you’re walking to catch the bus. You can be assaulted while sitting on your friend's couch, or while you’re sitting in the library. As long as we carry these little devices along, no one is safe (don’t worry, this won’t be all sinister — and before you get into a fuss, I’m not a blatant anti-technology tyrant. I have an Instagram, just like the rest of you).
What’s more, the relentless mill of images and information that cycles through our minds every day tends to lend to a sense of what Professor Alan Jacobs terms “social acceleration”. Breaking Bread with the Dead: Reading the Past in Search for a Tranquil Mind describes the phenomenon: the feeling that “not only is this world changing, but it’s changing faster and faster”. And this feeling can be overwhelming – in many ways, we feel like we just can’t catch up. Social acceleration and information overload can leave us feeling stretched, scattered, and late, all the time. We’re too hurried to live in the present, and far too anxious to get to the future. My hunch is that somehow, our close proximity to these little devices has warped our temporal bandwidth – that is, it has distorted our ability to be truly present — by demanding renewed attention to an entirely new wave of information day in and day out. As writer Tony Tost noted, we’ve been “trapped in the pre-packaged bubble of the new” or the instantaneous, and, in the process, our perception of time — our “temporal bandwidth” — has become far too narrow and fragmented, leaving us feeling a little lost.
So, what’s the answer? As the Roman poet Horace asked nearly two thousand years ago in his Epistles, “What brings tranquility?”
Professor Jacobs considers this question in his book. In essence, he tackles the dilemma of our age by presenting us with an entertaining alternative: accumulate “personal density” through a deepened understanding of the past, largely through reading the works of dead people. By “personal destiny”, Jacobs is referring to the concept as outlined in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow: “Personal density … is directly proportional to temporal bandwidth… ‘Temporal bandwidth’ is the width of your present, your now … The more you dwell in the past and in the future, the thicker your bandwidth, the more solid your persona”. In other words, “personal density” refers to our solidity, our groundedness, sense of locality both within our current culture and our current age, keeping in mind the factors at play which led us to the here and now. Importantly, this sense of groundedness is founded on a wider perspective – a perspective that Jacobs argues can largely be found in old books.
So the question remains: where does this concept arise in the realm of arts & culture?
In an interview with Trinity Forum, Jacobs comments upon the idea of the 3:1 ratio in reading: for every modern author that we read, we are encouraged to include three dead ones (“dead” is not necessarily the only prerequisite — the main idea is that they are writing in a time outside of our own. In an age that has progressed as quickly as our own, the writings of an author from the 1970s might actually do the trick in offering us a wildly new perspective). This ratio, he hopes, will help us grasp what seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes considered to be the main principle of history: “to instruct and enable [us], by the knowledge of actions past, to bear themselves prudently in the present and providentially towards the future”. Three old books for every new one might feel daunting, and I’m no book-reading police — I think 1:2 or even 1:1 gets the same point across. Regardless, maintaining a balance of old and new will work to expand our literary conversation to include voices from ages and cultures vastly different from our own, to beneficial and — hopefully — grounding ends.
In practice, this principle looks something like this (for the sake of simplicity and word count, I’ll keep the ratio 1:1): I pick up Jeannette Walls’ 2005 memoir, Glass Castle. A remarkable, vibrant story of a family at once broken, dysfunctional, and incredibly resilient; a family that is, in many ways, victims of West Virginia Appalachian poverty. As a native of the Appalachian mountains, this story hit home to me, at my current age. Growing up, I saw firsthand how human poverty can be intermixed with the rugged beauty of mountain life; an uncomfortable juxtaposition of economic disparity and natural resilience.
While there’s no perfect parallel or cocktail of novels to compliment Walls’ startling memoir, I’ll suggest Charles Dickens’ Hard Times. A fictional telling of a town transformed and marked by industrialism and class division, located in nineteenth-century England. A prevailing theme throughout Hard Times is the moral elevation of those few individuals belonging to the lower class; conversely, the wealthy factory owners are cast as uncaring and frivolous (if not malicious) in their treatment of others. In an imperfect manner, Dickens mirrors Walls’ effort to elevate, but likewise complicate, our perception of poverty and eccentricity, warning against any inclination to dismiss the moral integrity of individuals based on their economic standing. Hard Times is located in a time and a region entirely different from Walls and yet, both authors comment upon the natural resilience in the face of poverty. Both voices challenge and confront the traditional roots of education in their own time: despite Walls’ unorthodox and haphazard education, she nevertheless succeeded in compiling a memoir that is eloquent and exceedingly compelling.
Likewise, Hard Times considers whether education consists solely of rude arithmetic and rote learning or something that is primarily gained by experience. And finally, both voices certainly have something to say about dysfunctional families and complex sibling relationships. Despite their vast temporal, cultural, and geographic difference, both voices create a bridge between now and then, reminding us that certain themes of the human condition are universal, eternal, and unrelenting.
It is not uncommon for us to be offended by the skeletons we find in dead men and women’s closets. However, Jacobs’ hope is that, as we invest inthe past with humility and curiosity, we might become more stable beings, emboldened by a wider perspective of the past and of humanity in general — for no one is without fault. Shallow, reactionary understanding is the unfortunate consequence of a hurried life; too often, we run the risk of taking things, as they are, for granted, forgetting or remaining ignorant of the wisdom (whether by example or by warning) from voices in ages past. Horace invites us, as readers and humans, to “[i]nterrogate the writings of the wise… Ask them to tell you of how you can / Get through life in a peaceable tranquil way”. Let’s hop off the information overload bandwagon together; let’s take time to break bread with the dead — in arts and culture and elsewhere.