Alan Jacobs – Breaking Bread with the Dead

I’ve just finished Alan Jacobs’ Breaking Bread with the Dead. Reading this book lead me down some wonderful technology-related rabbit holes that, in turn lead me back to people I haven’t thought about or read in a long time, especially Ivan Illich, Mark Hurst (man, The Good Easy takes me back).

Hurst interviews Jacobs on the Techtonic podcast and I got a lot out of their conversation.

One of several interesting ideas that Jacobs’ floats in Bread is that of Personal Density. The term comes from Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow where an engineer named Kurt Mondaugen posits this law of human existence

Personal density … is directly proportional to temporal bandwidth.

Pynchon’s narrator continues: “‘Temporal bandwidth’ is the width of your present, your now. … The more you dwell in the past and future, the thicker your bandwidth, the more solid your persona. But the narrower your sense of Now, the more tenuous you are.”

Jacobs writes about Personal Density in the context of how our current media consumption via The Feed of social media comes at such volume and pressure that our now is becoming more and more compressed and narrow. What seemed so important to us just last week has already faded from our attention as quickly as the last Tweet has scrolled off the screen.

Jacobs’ prescription is to expand our now by reading older books. We need to reach back in time to extend our temporal bandwidth. We need to read, widely and include a lot of classics and older material.

You need the personal density that will hold you firmly until, in your considered and settled judgment, it is time to move. And to acquire the requisite density you have to get out of your transitory moment and into bigger time. Personal density is proportionate to temporal bandwidth.

What I particularly love about this book is Jacobs’ mandate that we be generous and hospitable to the voices of the past even when they are offensive to our current beliefs and ideals.

If it is foolish to think that we can carry with us all the good things from the past—from our personal past or that of our culture—while leaving behind all the unwanted baggage, it is a counsel of despair and, I think, another kind of foolishness to think that if we leave behind the errors and miseries of the past, we must also leave behind everything that gave that world its savor. Wisdom lies in discernment, and utopianism and nostalgia alike are ways of abandoning discernment.

We need to be generous. We need to realize that writers were products of their time. That there is still gold to be mined in them hills even if parts of the author’s world view seems out of step with our own.

…the moment of double realization. To confront the reality that the very same people who give us rich wisdom can also talk what seems to us absolute nonsense (and vice versa) is an education in the human condition. Including our own condition, which is likewise compounded of wisdom and nonsense.

This, of course, reminds me of the line from one of Jim Harrison’s characters: “Every day I wonder how many things I am dead wrong about.” I like that idea of hedging our bets, knowing that–in all likelihood and at any point in time–we are wrong about something that is probably very important.

Jacob’s book arrived at an opportune time for me as I try to disengage with Facebook while still trying to participate meaningfully online. I’ve found his approach of broadening my now helpful. So helpful that I’ve picked up two of his previous books that, combined with this one, seem to make up a trilogy of sorts: How to Think and The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. Looking forward to learning what kind of perspective these titles may add to my relationship with being online.