Skip to main content

🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

Befriending Books: On Reading and Thinking with Alan Jacobs and Zena Hitz

November 23rd, 2020 | 16 min read

By Brad East

We like to think, of course, that we think; but what people allow to pass for thinking is usually about 90 percent reshuffling of images.

—Robert Farrar Capon

Do you want to do intellectual work? Begin by creating within you a zone of silence, a habit of recollection, a will to renunciation and detachment which puts you entirely at the disposal of the work; acquire that state of soul unburdened by desire and self-will which is the state of grace of the intellectual worker. Without that you will do nothing, at least nothing worthwhile.

—A. G. Sertillanges, O.P.

You cannot think for yourself. You can only think with others. For thinking is irreducibly social: it is a conjoined activity, the sort of thing the human animal does with her fellows. Platitudes about critical thinking and thinking for oneself are little more than mantras designed to substitute one cadre in the enterprise of thought for another. Don’t think like them, think like us; which is to say, think with us instead of them. The impulse, though cloaked in the rhetoric of individualism, understands the stakes, and so the exhortation has the right idea. Much rides on whom you think with. The circle of reasoners into which you are born, in which you find yourself, into which, perhaps, you insert yourself, makes all the difference.

So argues Alan Jacobs in his 2017 book How to Think. That slim volume was the second in what Jacobs, who teaches in the Honors Program at Baylor University, has come to call his “pedagogical trilogy.” The first was The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, published in 2011. The final entry, published this year, returns to the topic of books: Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind.

And why not? If the quality of one’s thinking depends upon the quality of those one thinks with, the truth is that few of us have the ability to secure membership in a community of brilliant and wise, like-hearted but independent thinkers. Search for one as much as we like, we are bound to be frustrated. Moreover, recourse to the internet—one commonly proffered solution—is far more likely to exacerbate than to alleviate the problem: we may find like-minded souls, yes, but down that rabbit hole lies danger on every side. Far from nurturing studiositas, algorithms redirect the energies of the intellect into every manner of curiositas; far from preparing a multicourse feast, our digital masters function rather like Elliott in E.T., drawing us on with an endless trail of colorful candies. Underfed and unsatisfied, our minds continue to follow the path, munching on nothing, world without end.

Is there an alternative?

Jacobs believes there is. For the community of potential collaborators in thinking is not limited to the living, much less those relatively few living folks who surround each of us. It includes the dead. And how do we commune with the dead? Through books. A library is a kind of mausoleum: it houses the dead in the tombs of their words. We break bread with them, in Auden’s phrase, when we read them. Reading them, we find ourselves inducted into the great conversation that spans every civilization and culture from time immemorial on to the present and into the future. We encounter others who are really and truly other than us.

But not too other. Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto: nothing human, per Terence, is alien to a fellow human being. And every book, without exception, comes from a human mind, a human life. Angels are not authors, and even the most stringent doctrine of Scripture affirms the apostles and prophets as more than secretaries of the Spirit. Books, in short, are human things. Which means that likeness comprehends unlikeness in the encounter mediated by reading. You may not see yourself in a book. But some part of you is staring back nonetheless. Indeed, that is the destabilizing, even frightening, part of reading books from the past, from different times and parts of the world. Some spark of human nature is aflame in it, and that nature abides in you, too.

* * *

One suspicion of this literary pan-humanism is that it cedes to the past authority over the present. More to the point, it canonizes authors, texts, and ideas that call not for communion but for condemnation. It privileges the views of a wicked past that many today want to recede as quickly as possible, not dredge up for reception or retrieval. Breaking bread with the dead, from this vantage point, is conservative in the worst way: it gives aid and comfort to the status quo. The way things are is the way things have to be—and I’ve got the classics to prove it.

Jacobs is sensitive to these concerns. He agrees that the past contains evils worthy of nothing so much as our censure. He has no interest in permitting the dead to rule over us, a de facto necrocracy that robs the living of dissent, protest, development. Recall that he wants us to think with, not have our thinking done for us.

To think with the dead in the form of old books is an act, accordingly, not of submission but of hospitality and friendship. “The dead, being dead, speak only at our invitation: they will not come uninvited to our table.” To host Jonathan Edwards or Edmund Burke, Rosa Luxemburg or Malcolm X at your dinner table might, depending on who you are, prove an intimidating and even difficult evening. But texts don’t bite. Or rather, since occasionally they do, Jacobs reminds us that our hospitality is ours to offer and ours to rescind: “What the dead we encounter in books demand is only the blood of our attention, which we are free to withhold.”

Having extended a seat to unlikely guests, however, we might just find ourselves engrossed by what they say, discomfited or even enraptured by what they think and why. “In this sense a book can become very much like a friend”: not because we drop our guard, forsaking our critical faculties, not because we become a partisan of the text in question, but because we realize this book, this author, is now an essential companion in our lives. A companion we argue with, a companion we wrestle with, a companion who frustrates and at times enrages us, perhaps. But a companion nonetheless.

To count such a host of thinkers and their works friends is therefore to multiply, by an exponential factor, the ranks of those with whom one thinks. The benefits are manifold. The chief benefit that Jacobs highlights is twofold: tranquility of mind by means of increased temporal bandwidth. These blessings that come from befriending the dead are set against the backdrop of presentism, which Jacobs sees as the primary threat to mental peace and human flourishing more generally. Presentism is the default setting of the developed West; it dictates the terms on which politics, entertainment, work, romance, and religion are permitted to operate. It flits from moment to moment, gliding only on the surfaces of things, overloading its subjects with a surplus of context-free information not even a supercomputer could manage; it shocks, scandalizes, outrages—and then, with nothing but a flick of the thumb, more images, more links, more data, ad infinitum. Those Reese’s Pieces keep being laid before us, through the magic of our screens, and we keep shuffling along, stooping, chewing. And so “we find ourselves in a state of ‘frenetic standstill,’” a term coined by Paul Virilio and elaborated by Hartmut Rosa, according to which we are “constantly in motion but going nowhere.”

To the perils of presentism Jacobs opposes the concept of temporal bandwidth, or personal density. He borrows the idea from a character in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Presentism thins you out, stretches you taut; your bandwidth is attuned to nothing but the now, a kind of false eternity without past or future, beginning or end. To increase one’s bandwidth is to deepen one’s reservoir of resources that help to resist this thinning and flattening out. And one does so by rooting oneself in the past, indeed in many pasts: in Greek dialogues and Hebrew prophets, Roman rhetors and Christian apologists, Chinese philosophers and Arab mathematicians, African bishops and English anchorites, Renaissance poets and Reformation humanists, Russian novelists and Communist pamphleteers—and the rest. Such epochs and artifacts serve as anchors, tethering the ship of the mind to a thousand points of reference; these in turn hold one securely in place as wave after wave of digital’s infinite now crashes against the prow of one’s attention.

In Jacobs’ words: “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.” The greater the density, the thicker the bandwidth; the more of both, the higher one’s likelihood of enduring the tyranny of the present. For our culture is arrayed against the very possibility of a mind at rest. Breaking bread with the dead—reading ancient authors, befriending old books—is one path to a modest peace. In a word: seek first fellowship with the residents of “bigger time,” and peace will be added unto you. Happily, the path to acquiring both is a pleasure in itself.

A frumpy weapon then, reading, but no less mighty for that. A mediator of minds, between the living and the dead, reading is a kind of drawbridge for the intellect: a means of encountering reality, above all those nooks and crannies of reality we might have overlooked or had no opportunity to observe in our mundane workaday lives. Reality is what thinking is always after, in one way or another, even as reality is the one thing our age wants to keep us from facing head-on. With friends like the wise departed, the distractions of digital fade away into background noise. True tranquility comes when the noise is reduced to silence, and all the mind hears is the voice of the other, speaking through marks on a page.

* * *

If one suspicion of this proposal is that it cedes authority to an unjust past, another is that it neglects the causes of justice today for the private life of the mind. Instead of doing something to make the world a better place, the intellectual holes up in her study or curls up on a couch and … reads a book. Is such a habit defensible? Is it not limited to a select few, those privileged elite who have money and leisure and degrees sufficient to fund the intellectual life? Is it not dressed-up highbrow entertainment, the esoteric and irrelevant pursuits of eggheads and academics? Is it not, finally, useless at the social, economic, and political level? Who would look at the world as it stands and think that what we really need is more people reading dead authors and discussing old ideas?

Zena Hitz, for one. Hitz is the author of Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, published earlier this year. The book is an apology—part bibliography, part autobiography—on behalf of learning as an end in itself, and therefore of the life of the mind as an intrinsic human good.

Hitz studied ancient philosophy at Princeton and teaches across the liberal arts at St. John’s College, but her aim is neither a defense of the humanities per se nor one more manifesto in support of embattled institutions of higher education. In fact she thinks the academy is part of the problem. Her own story illustrates the point. On the one hand, her pursuit of the ostensible scholarly dream—a tenured gig at an elite research university—poisoned her love of learning with a self-regarding desire for success, approval, and affluence. On the other hand, this very admixture sapped any prior delight she took in the goods of the intellectual life for its own sake; what once seemed worthwhile in itself shrank in significance next to the prospect of “making a difference.” Of what social utility, after all, is pure mathematics, or text criticism of Syriac manuscripts, or journals containing Goethe’s dabbling in botany?

Having converted to Catholicism during her studies, Hitz later abandoned academia and joined Madonna House, a religious community in eastern Ontario, where she lived, worked, and prayed for three years. It is there where her journey to rediscovering what she calls “authentic intellectual work” begins—a journey mirrored by her return to academic life, now embraced and underwritten by a love of learning and teaching, no longer as means to other ends, but as ends in themselves.

* * *

Hitz’s work is a Catholic vision of a catholic humanism. Her account is not essentially religious, at least in terms of its material claims, but unfolds instead “a natural love of learning,” a feature of human life common and accessible to all. She writes:

The inner work of learning is fundamental to human happiness, as far from pointless wheel spinning as are the forms of tenderness we owe our children or grandchildren. Intellectual work is a form of loving service at least as important as cooking, cleaning, or raising children; as essential as the provision of shelter, safety, or health care; as valuable as the delivery of necessary goods and services; as crucial as the administration of justice. All of these other forms of work make possible, but only possible, the fruits of human flourishing in peace and leisure: study and reflection, art and music, prayer and celebration, family and friendship, and the contemplation of the natural world. Such a vision of the work of the mind leaves it open to anyone who has a desire for it.

The chapters that follow are largely positive in shape and tone, using a variety of authors and figures from history to exemplify her proposal. Though she mostly avoids polemic, however, Hitz sees many foes who stand opposed to a vision like hers.

The first foe is the view that intellectual life is fundamentally elitist. Hitz believes this notion arises from a profoundly mistaken understanding both of human nature and of the use of the intellect: “Human beings long for, need beyond words, something that exceeds the merely material or the merely social.” Love of learning isn’t the only way for women and men to flourish, but it is among the principal ways, and one needn’t be an academic to do it. Ordinary people do it all the time: in book clubs, in gardening classes, in observing the stars, in Sunday school. Learning initiates an encounter with reality that is not subject to our manipulation but calls instead for humility, receptivity, and awe. It occasions our transcendence from the surfaces of things, inducting us into their depths: “To be dominated by the senses is to be helpless in the face of whatever they present, to be drawn haplessly from one thing to another.” So that, “[u]nless we treasure something beyond our own bare experience, we cannot distinguish gazing at a mighty river from gazing at the TV channels changing one to the other, over and over again.” In more than one respect, learning is a mode of freedom.

The other foes that Hitz identifies are paired, because each is a form of instrumentalization: “thinking-as-entrepreneurship, thinking-as-fighting-for-justice.” Both see learning as a means to some other end. The first such end is social and economic utility. Consider this the threat from the Right. Why study Victorian literature in college if the point of a degree is to get a high-paying job? Hitz notes that, in older aristocratic conceptions of wealth, at the very least the point of money was to fund the sort of leisure that made learning and contemplation possible. Whereas today those who make the most money work the longest hours: they work in order to work more. The only word for this dynamic is bondage. It produces nothing but a “heap of slaves,” at the top of which “is not even an exploitative gentleman farmer … but another slave at a higher social rank.” This, to put it mildly, cannot be the end of learning. The humanistic arts are liberal because they liberate; to twist them so as to produce unfree persons trapped in cycles of meaningless labor with no end but its own reproduction is as ironic as it is tragic and unjust.

Perhaps, then, the end of learning is political: the life of the mind terminates in social justice. Hitz certainly agrees that one “social use of intellectual life lies in its cultivation of broader and richer ways of being human, in shaping our aspirations and our hopes for ourselves.” It is not as though the love of learning is disconnected from the goods of human society or personal growth in virtue. Yet Hitz is insistent that “the impact of the dedication of intellectual life to social justice,” what she terms “the corruption of learning by politics and political goals,” is “perverse.” Call this the threat from the Left. Why does Hitz think it must be resisted?

For at least three reasons. First, because the scope of the intellect embraces far more than politics; it cannot be circumscribed by whatever is deemed useful for achieving justice, important as that task is. Second, because once learning is made a servant of politics it becomes merely a tool in the hands of public actors, uncoupled from what is true, good, or beautiful in itself and for its own sake. “If intellectual life is not left to rest in its splendid uselessness,” she writes, “it will never bear its practical fruit. Likewise, the struggle for a just society is worthless if it costs us the fruits of justice.”

The final reason concerns the nature of intellectual life, which in Hitz’s view is essentially inward. The mind lies within oneself; in order to use it well one must withdraw from what is external to a sort of interior space. The relationship between penetrating the surface of reality and turning within oneself is directly, not inversely, proportional. Just as knowledge of God and of oneself is inseparably tied together, according to Calvin, so learning about the nature of things means facing one’s own nature, as in a mirror. This mental movement inward calls for an emotional, spiritual, and sometimes literal detachment as well. “The exercise of the love of learning,” Hitz writes, “is a form of the inner life; it requires withdrawal from the pursuit of wealth and status, from politics and the pursuit of justice.” Being thus hidden, it affords a dignity no outward state of affairs can threaten or diminish: “It uncovers a human being who is not reducible to his or her economic, social, or political contributions.” Upon lives in which society can see little value or utility, it bestows—or rather, nourishes within—a radiant self-possession, shining with secret beauty.

In this way intellectual work is ascetic. Our minds are benumbed by the synthetic sheen of images and icons, falsely so called. Digital artifice flattens surfaces to the vanishing point. Nevertheless our hearts cling to the superficial and the spectacle, begging for more. The ascesis of the mind is necessary, therefore, to discipline our desires and direct our gaze to that which is real, to “what matters most”—“to reach out for and stay in touch with reality.” In learning we escape not only from the world, that teeming arena of competition and domination, but also from ourselves.

“To exercise the love of learning,” in sum, “is to flee what is worst in us for the sake of the better, to reach for more in the face of what is not enough.” Hitz believes that every human soul, at bottom, wants a glimpse or taste of that “more,” and that the life of the mind is one particularly apt and satisfying way in which anyone can lay hold of it, if only for a moment.

* * *

Glossing St. Augustine, Hitz writes that “our ability to love one another depends on our capacity to learn from one another. That suggests that we learn in order to love.” Though she feels this claim might mitigate the value of learning for its own sake, she admits that the solitary inwardness of learning is always incomplete: “It is as if love overflows from understanding, or as if understanding were intrinsically generous. Delight in learning flows naturally into delight in teaching.”

Jacobs concurs: “‘What we have loved, / Others will love, and we will teach them how,’ wrote Wordsworth, and the ones who taught me how were primarily writers. I loved their stories, so I was prepared to love the stories they loved.” From which he draws a conclusion capacious in its catholicity: “Breaking bread with the dead is not a scholarly task to be completed but a permanent banquet, to which all who hunger are invited.”

The metaphor is fitting, and it encompasses our authors. For in these books two master pedagogues spread a feast before the reader. The meal is permanent inasmuch as the reader cannot get to the end of it, for what they propose involves a lifetime. And though the courses are endless, that is not because they are empty calories. It is because the sustenance they provide is immeasurable. If in learning what we willy-nilly encounter is what is most truly real, then what we must realize is that reality is ruled, finally, not by scarcity but by abundance. The world is a surfeit of beauty and goodness and truth, if only we have the eyes to see.

Just as reading old books increases temporal bandwidth, so the ascesis of learning creates a kind of sensory remove. One’s whole self, body and soul, is disentangled, at least in part, from the cross-pressures of the here and now, this space and this time, with all its demands and assumptions. We meet reality—the nature of things, persons and ideas, living and dead—across the footbridge of the mind, spanning every distance we might imagine. Divorced from the everyday, we make time for what matters: the fundamental human questions that give life meaning and animate every great endeavor and work of art.

Hitz and Jacobs have spread us a feast, but they are more than hosts. They are part of the meal. Though living, their own ideas are now of a piece with all other ideas on offer. Their books, though new, will one day be old. They will, if we let them, insert themselves into our ever-expanding circle of fellow thinkers. We need neither eat nor think alone. Not every book is worthy of friendship, but for the purposes of thinking-with, these two make for good company.

Enjoy the article? Pay the writer.

Personal Info

Donation Total: $0

Brad East

Brad East (PhD, Yale University) is assistant professor of theology in the College of Biblical Studies at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. He is the editor of Robert Jenson’s The Triune Story: Collected Essays on Scripture (Oxford University Press, 2019) and the author of The Doctrine of Scripture (Cascade, 2021) and The Church’s Book: Theology of Scripture in Ecclesial Context (Eerdmans, 2022). His articles have been published in Modern Theology, International Journal of Systematic Theology, Scottish Journal of Theology, Journal of Theological Interpretation, Anglican Theological Review, Pro Ecclesia, Political Theology, Restoration Quarterly, and The Other Journal; his essays and reviews have appeared in The Christian Century, Christianity Today, Comment, Commonweal, First Things, The Hedgehog Review, Living Church, Los Angeles Review of Books, Marginalia Review of Books, Mere Orthodoxy, The New Atlantis, Plough, and The Point. Further information, as well as his blog, can be found at