more than 95 theses


A journal, commonplace book, and Wunderkammer by Alan Jacobs.

My blog on technologies of reading, writing, and knowledge is called Text Patterns; I am an occasional contributor to the Technology channel of The Atlantic; I'm a Contributing Editor for The New Atlantis. Also, I tweet.

My biography of the Book of Common Prayer has now been published by Princeton University Press, and I’ve created an associated tumblelog.

My critical edition of W. H. Auden’s long poem For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio is now available.

My next book will be about Christian humanism in a time of total war.

I invite you to a meditative encounter with my online project The Gospel of the Trees.

Please consider supporting this tumblelog by buying some of my books. I will thank you, my family will thank you, and the internet — surely — will thank you.

”Reverting to Type: a Reader’s Story”

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

The Age of Anxiety, by W. H. Auden — a critical edition. A PDF of my Introduction to the poem is available online.

Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant

Original Sin: a Cultural History

Looking Before and After: Testimony and the Christian Life

The Narnian: the Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis

Shaming the Devil: Essays in Truthtelling

A Theology of Reading: the Hermeneutics of Love

A Visit to Vanity Fair: Moral Essays on the Present Age

What Became of Wystan: Change and Continuity in Auden’s Poetry

  • July 14, 2014 7:00 pm

    "Is evangelical Christian morality still viable in American public life? This is the question lurking in recent debates over religious-liberty issues, from the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision to the Christian bakers who object to baking cakes for gay weddings. In discussions of these cases, objections to same-sex marriage and contraception are described as a retreat from “secular society.” And in some cases, evangelicals actually have retreated: Since the Boy Scouts of America decided to allow openly gay Scouts to participate, a “Christian” alternative has been created, giving Christian parents a “safe” space where they can send their kids. But these incidences of retreat have actually been rare. Ultimately, the idea that evangelical Christian morality is incompatible with modern life isn’t sustainable."

    Is Evangelical Morality Still Acceptable in America? - Alan Noble - The Atlantic I get what Alan Noble is trying to do here, but this is a conceptually confused essay.

    Just look at the title and the first and last sentences of this quotation. Together they assume that “America,” “American public life,” and “modern life” are synonyms. Which they most definitely are not.

    It just doesn’t make sense to put American evangelical Christians on one side and “American society” (another phrase used here) on the other. That contrast assumes precisely the point that the cultured despisers of evangelicalism assume: that evangelicals are somehow less American than they (the despisers) are, or non-American. But American citizens who happen to be evangelical Christians are not by virtue of that commitment any less American than anyone else. Nor are they necessarily less a part of “American public life.” Last time I checked a good many of them were in Coongress, and on the radio and television, and in books and magazines.

    I fear that Noble’s way of formulating the conflict — which he rightly discerns — plays into the hands of those who think that they get to decide how much of the Christian religion they are willing to tolerate. I, on the other hand, am not willing to grant them that authority. Nor is the law — at least for now.

    One of the most important moments in the history of American religious freedom — now rarely remembered — is the letter that President George Washington wrote to the members of the synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. Those Jews had (graciously) written to thank the President for his suppprt of their religious freedom. To this Washington replied that he deserved no thanks: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts.”

    I’m going to give you that again: "It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts.”

    In the same way, people who happen to despise evangelical Christians cannot arrogate to themselves the decision of how much religion they’re willing to accept. They are not the arbiters of tolerance of others. We are all on an equal footing before the law, and should insist on that equality — for others more than for ourselves, but when necessary, for ourselves also.

  • July 14, 2014 6:47 pm

    "Moore is fond of saying that Christianity should be “freakish” or “strange” and shouldn’t fit so neatly into the culture at large. His arguments sound reminiscent of early-20th-century fundamentalists’ withdrawal from public life, after their cultural setback following the Scopes Monkey Trial."

    The Culture Warrior in Winter - No, they don’t. Not in any way, shape, or form. Moore’s point is simply that Christianity is not “normal,” or “common sense” — the Christian message is rather a challenge to our standard operating procedure, whoever and whatever we are. This is a point all really serious Christians make, whether they come from the right or the left or no recognizable point on the political spectrum.

    Aside from its unfortunately captivity to a simplistic but very familiar narrative of American religious life in which the term “fundamentalist” does the kind of affective heavy lifting that only an ultimate bogey-word can do, this article, by Tiffany Stanley, is a good portrait of Richard Land.

  • July 14, 2014 3:59 pm


    Ohara Hale’s delightful illustrations of Denise Levertov’s poems.

    via Brain Pickings

  • July 11, 2014 7:02 pm


    The reforms never seem to work. This makes the need for reform all the more urgent. The country now spends more than $650 billion on primary and secondary education every year, far more than on our national defense, and nearly three times what it spent when Jimmy Carter decided we needed the Department of Education to encourage and guide education spending. Over the last three decades, increases in education funding have outstripped inflation by 20 percent. For many years now the United States has spent more money per-student than any other country in the world.

    During that time, from what anybody can figure, there has been no overall improvement in the acquisition of skills and knowledge among American students, except among the very poor. But even at the economic bottom, where room for improvement was greatest, the numbers remain dismal: At present trends, only 9 out of 100 poor children who enter kindergarten today will grow up to hold a college degree. As a whole, the country’s educational attainments rest in the mediocre middle of international rankings—well below Canada, but above Mexico, just like on the map.


    The Common Core Commotion

  • July 11, 2014 3:50 pm

    "It was said of one of the elders that he persevered in a fast of seventy weeks, eating only once a week. The elder ask God to reveal to him the meaning of a certain Scripture text, and God would not reveal it to him. So he said to himself: Look at all the work I have done without getting anywhere! I will go to one of the brothers and ask him. When he had gone out and closed the door and was starting on his way an angel of the Lord was sent to him, saying: The seventy weeks you fasted did not bring you any closer to God, but now that you have humbled yourself and set out to ask your brother, I am sent to reveal the meaning of that text. And opening to him the meaning which he sought, he went away."

    — Quoted in Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert

  • July 11, 2014 11:34 am


    But wait, some will object: You can’t reduce contemporary American liberalism to the illiberal outbursts of loudmouthed activists, intemperate journalists, foolish undergraduates, and reckless Ivy League professors!

    To which the proper response is: True!

    Still, I wonder: Where have been all the outraged liberals taking a stand against these and many other examples of dogmatism — and doing so in the name of liberalism? I’ve been doing that in my own writing. And I’ve appreciated the occasional expressions of modest support from a handful of liberal readers. But what about the rest of you?


    Damon Linker. I’ve been wondering the same thing. How many Americans are there who, while liberal themselves, don’t think it’s a good idea to try to drive religious believers altogether out of the public sphere? If a significant number of them remain, they are very, very quiet.

  • July 11, 2014 10:27 am

    "The genius of Eno is in removing the idea of genius. His work is rooted in the power of collaboration within systems: instructions, rules, and self-imposed limits. His methods are a rebuke to the assumption that a project can be powered by one person’s intent, or that intent is even worth worrying about. To this end, Eno has come up with words like “scenius,” which describes the power generated by a group of artists who gather in one place at one time. (“Genius is individual, scenius is communal,” Eno told the Guardian, in 2010.) It suggests that the quality of works produced in a certain time and place is more indebted to the friction between the people on hand than to the work of any single artist."

    Sasha Frere-Jones: Brian Eno’s Quiet Influence

  • July 11, 2014 8:08 am

410 Bleecker Street, just one of James Gulliver Hancock’s drawings of All the Buildings in New York View high resolution


    410 Bleecker Street, just one of James Gulliver Hancock’s drawings of All the Buildings in New York

  • July 11, 2014 8:04 am

    "All that is necessary is that we not be hypocritical, that we recognize why we read and admire writers like Simone Weil. I cannot believe that more than a handful of the tens of thousands of readers she has won since the posthumous publication of her books and essays really share her ideas. Nor is it necessary—necessary to share Simone Weil’s anguished and unconsummated love affair with the Catholic Church, or accept her gnostic theology of divine absence, or espouse her ideals of body denial, or concur in her violently unfair hatred of Roman civilization and the Jews. Similarly, with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche; most of their modern admirers could not, and do not embrace their ideas. We read writers of such scathing originality for their personal authority, for the example of their seriousness, for their manifest willingness to sacrifice themselves for their truths, and—only piecemeal—for their “views.” As the corrupt Alcibiades followed Socrates, unable and unwilling to change his own life, but moved, enriched, and full of love; so the sensitive modern reader pays his respect to a level of spiritual reality which is not, could not, be his own."

    Susan Sontag on Simone Weil (1963)

  • July 10, 2014 6:04 pm


    Julie Posetti: Some journalists and editors have told me that they’re thinking of closing their Facebook accounts in the wake of this scandal - what’s your response to that reaction? Would you consider that course of action now?

    Jay Rosen: Yes, I have considered it. And I may do that one day. I have 180,000 subscribers on Facebook but I barely use it. I can go for a week or two without logging in. I post photos I am proud of occasionally, and sometimes links to my own work. Last week I posted a lot on Facebook about the issues we are discussing now, using the platform to air criticism of it. But what I do every day on Twitter—curate links and comment in the area of my expertise, adding value to the system for free because I get something back—I will not do on Facebook because of the opacity of its algorithm. Facebook thinks it knows better than I do what those 180,000 subscribers should receive from me. I find that unacceptable, though I understand why they do it. I am not in a commercial situation where I have to maximize my traffic, so I can opt out. Right now my choice is to keep my account, but use it cynically.


    Facebook Has All the Power. I’m sure Facebook is perfectly happy to have all its users “use it cynically,” as long as they stay around.

  • July 10, 2014 5:43 pm

    "In a slapdash reply to an article I published at Slate, the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne provides just such a response. First, he pretends that the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” means “How did the universe come about?” And so he has an answer: the Big Bang. I confess I find this somewhat cute, as if I had asked a child why there is money and he had answered, “Because there are ATMs.”"

    Michael Robbins (paywalled, I think).

  • July 10, 2014 5:38 pm

    "A straw man can be a very convenient property, after all. I can see why a plenteously contented, drowsily complacent, temperamentally incurious atheist might find it comforting—even a little luxurious—to imagine that belief in God is no more than belief in some magical invisible friend who lives beyond the clouds, or in some ghostly cosmic mechanic invoked to explain gaps in current scientific knowledge. But I also like to think that the truly reflective atheist would prefer not to win all his or her rhetorical victories against childish caricatures. I suppose the success of the books of the ‘new atheists’—which are nothing but lurchingly spasmodic assaults on whole armies of straw men—might go some way toward proving the opposite. Certainly, none of them is an impressive or cogent treatise, and I doubt posterity will be particularly kind to any of them once the initial convulsions of celebrity have subsided. But they have definitely sold well. I doubt that one should make much of that, though. The new atheists’ texts are manifestoes, buoyantly coarse and intentionally simplistic, meant to fortify true unbelievers in their unbelief; their appeal is broad but certainly not deep; they are supposed to induce a mood, not encourage deep reflection; and at the end of the day they are probably only a passing fad in trade publishing, directed at a new niche market."

    — David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God. Reading Hart is such a … bracing thing. Sort of like knocking back a tumbler of white lightning.

  • July 10, 2014 5:31 pm
  • July 10, 2014 3:52 pm

    "And on the other hand, the material value is apt to undermine the manly character; so that it must be our work, in the issue, to examine what evidence there is of the effect of wealth on the minds of its possessors; also, what kind of person it is who usually sets himself to obtain wealth, and succeeds in doing so; and whether the world owes more gratitude to rich or to poor men, either for their moral influence upon it, or for chief goods, discoveries, and practical advancements. I may, however, anticipate future conclusions, so far as to state that in a community regulated only by laws of demand and supply, but protected from open violence, the persons who become rich are, generally speaking, industrious, resolute, proud, covetous, prompt, methodical, sensible, unimaginative, insensitive, and ignorant. The persons who remain poor are the entirely foolish, the entirely wise, the idle, the reckless, the humble, the thoughtful, the dull, the imaginative, the sensitive, the well-informed, the improvident, the irregularly and impulsively wicked, the clumsy knave, the open thief, and the entirely merciful, just, and godly person."

    — John Ruskin, Unto This Last

  • July 9, 2014 7:59 pm

    "Stanley was extraordinarily logical, inclined to have everything seamless. Hollywood movies in general, nowadays especially, with the story or scriptwriters coming last in the pecking order, tend to have vast flaws in the story logic because quite often the story is still being cobbled together during shooting. But Stanley wouldn’t allow anything like that. He needed to spend years and years to have everything perfect, to have the machine, the clockwork impeccable before the shooting commenced. And then of course he would spend about two years shooting, the philosophy being that once you have everything gathered together, you might as well film the same scene 50 times over, rather than just doing it a couple of times and saying ‘wrap’. Because, if you do it 50 times, something “interesting” might happen; this basically involved the actors going so far beyond just being actors that they were either living the role by then in a Zen state of hypnosis, or they might go crazy and do something completely original, fresh and strange."

    Ian Watson on working for Stanley Kubrick