The title suggests a guide to the worthy books of the past, but it is actually Alan Jacobs’ argument for why we should assign any worth to such books. The necessity of his argument, Jacobs explains, is a modern mindset that is overloaded with information, experiencing change at a rapid pace, and inundated with the idea that progress is the highest value and the past must be superseded (if not extirpated in its entirety). In the realm of reading, the result of this mindset is a reflexive tendency to reject books based on the most minimal association with anything deemed sinful by modern standards. The consequence: huge swaths of humanity’s literary heritage are disregarded under the broad labels of racist, misogynistic, Eurocentric and so on.
With that consequence comes a loss of our “temporal bandwidth,” writes Jacobs, the degree to which our present consciousness is informed by the past and the future. For many, their temporal bandwidth has narrowed so much that they have lost a meaningful sense of themselves, their place in the world, their purpose in life, or any sense of higher values. They are caught in a “frenetic standstill,” endlessly bombarded with demands on attention, living in a world where history began with the most recent Instagram post, and the future doesn’t exist beyond the currently contemplated tweet.
Encountering the past through literature widens our temporal bandwidth, creating a greater personal “density,” writes Jacobs. This is a call to treat the past neither as the unimpeachable source of the great and the good; nor as a cultural zoo, filled with secured, caged prejudices and bad ideas to be observed objectively, remotely and without the threat of contamination. Rather the point is to see in the past both the differences and the similarities.
Through old books, we encounter people just like ourselves, people who had grand aspirations but routinely felt short of them, who did noble things but held hateful beliefs. People who were, just as we are, only human. Jacobs offers a timely and persuasive call for us to take a longer, wider view of world. One through which so much of what divides us fades away against a grand vista of our common humanity.