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

  • August 18, 2014 10:34 am


    According to Apuleius, Pleasure is the daughter of Cupid and Psyche – of Love and the Soul, that is, a sufficiently elevated pedigree, one would have thought. Yet the British still put up a strong resistance to the idea that pleasurability might be a valid criterion in the response to literature, just as we remain dubious about the value of the ‘decorative’ in the visual arts. When Graham Greene made ‘entertainments’ a separate category from the hard stuff in his production, he rammed home the point: the difference was a moral one, a difference between reading to pass the time pleasurably – that is, trivially – and reading to some purpose.

    The ‘great tradition’ does not brook even the possibility of libidinal gratification between the pages as an end in itself, and F.R. Leavis’s ‘eat up your broccoli’ approach to fiction emphasises this junkfood/wholefood dichotomy. If reading a novel – for the 18th-century reader, the most frivolous of diversions – did not, by the middle of the 20th century, make you a better person in some way, then you might as well flush the offending volume down the toilet, which was by far the best place for the undigested excreta of dubious nourishment.


    — The great Angela Carter

  • August 16, 2014 8:12 pm

    "A Remark You Made": a neglected gem from the fusion era of jazz — a little too poppy for some, but what beautiful, beautiful playing from Wayne Shorter on sax and the late, lamented Jaco Pastorius on bass, plus a brilliant keyboard solo near the end from the composer Joe Zawinul.

  • August 16, 2014 7:52 pm
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  • August 16, 2014 7:48 pm
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  • August 15, 2014 5:27 pm


    No matter the text that he’s ostensibly engaged with, Mr. Keating, like Hamlet in Stéphane Mallarmé’s wonderful description, is forever “reading in the book of himself.” This is what Keating’s namesake John Keats (referencing Wordsworth) called the “egotistical sublime.” Recently, some pioneering work in neuroscience has begun to suggest what English teachers have long known: that the power of literature is the power of alterity, creating the possibility of encountering the other in a form not easily recuperable, not easily assimilable to the self. “Imaginative sympathy,” we used to call it. To read literature well is to be challenged, and to emerge changed.

    But for Keating, it’s the text (like Frost’s poem) that is changed, not the reader. He does the same thing to the Whitman poem “O Me! O Life!” that he recites to his students. Used as the voiceover for a recent iPad ad, Mr. Keating’s pep talk quotes the opening and closing lines of the poem, silently eliding the middle: “Oh me! Oh life! / of the questions of these recurring, / Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish, /…/ What good amid these, O me, O life? // Answer. // That you are here—that life exists and identity, / That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” He’s quoting from Whitman, he says, but the first line he omits is telling: “Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?).” Go back and add that line to the quotation and see how it alters the whole. For Keating—and one fears, examining the scant evidence the film provides, for his students—every poem is a Song of Myself. This, then, is what’s at stake in Keating’s misreadings—I’m not interested simply in catching a fictional teacher out in an error. But he misreads both Frost and Whitman in such a way that he avoids precisely that encounter with the other, finding in poetry only an echo of what he already knows—what he’s oft thought, but ne’er so well expressed.


    Dead Poets Society Is a Terrible Defense of the Humanities. The funny thing is, I think the movie actually demonstrates some of what’s wrong with Keating’s approach, but I don’t think I’ve ever met a fan of the film who notices that.

  • August 15, 2014 4:34 pm
    Bhurtpore, taken by Samuel Bourne in 1865 View high resolution

    Bhurtpore, taken by Samuel Bourne in 1865

    (Source: Flickr / mopa1)

  • August 15, 2014 3:49 pm


    Fin and Rye are proficient with most of the hand and power tools that form the backbone of any working farm. By the time they were eight, both of them could operate the tractor and, in a pinch, drive the truck with a load of logs. They split firewood alongside us, swinging their mauls with remarkable accuracy. They are both licensed hunters and own .22 rifles and 20-gauge shotguns. They wear belt knives almost everywhere, oblivious to the stares of the adults around them, some concerned, some perplexed, and some, it often seems to me, nostalgic.

    Our sons are not entirely self-taught; we understand the limits of the young mind and its still-developing capacity for judgment. None of these responsibilities were granted at an arbitrary, age-based marker, but rather as the natural outgrowth of their evolving skills and maturity. We have noticed, however, that the more responsibility we give our sons, the more they assume. The more we trust them, the more trustworthy they become. This may sound patronizingly obvious, yet I cannot help but notice the starring role that institutionalized education—with its inherent risk aversion—plays in expunging these qualities.


    Unschooling: The Case for Setting Your Kids Into the Wild

  • August 14, 2014 7:20 pm

    There has never been a better Gospel singer than Sam Cooke. He was around 25 when this was recorded, and had already developed his inimitable vocal style.

  • August 14, 2014 6:50 pm


    CT: Yes, but I have to say that there are lots of very, very valid criticisms of the form that “you didn’t take account of …” because, as I tried to say in the preface, [A Secular Age] is really like a collection of essays. I realized that my experience puts me in the centre, in the middle of the Anglophone, of the Francophone, and, because of my reading and interest in Germany, in the middle of the Germanophone…, okay?

    But it’s also very Catholic-centred. I got this brilliant letter from a Dane who has written a brilliant book, and I hope I can get it translated, saying, “You didn’t understand Luther. You don’t understand how this makes for a different account.” Well, guilty as charged! I mean, I think of [A Secular Age] as a kind of sketch of what will one day (but never come!) be a more complete picture of that question of the Western World.

    JS: Well, I think it has functioned as an invitation in that respect. You’re quite content to see people take pieces and trajectories and follow them more deeply and carefully and fill out, colour in the cartoon, as it were.

    CT: Yeah, that’s right. Or change some of my summary judgments. You made the point [in How (Not) to Be Secular] about Calvin, and obviously Calvin is not one of my strong points. So I recognize that there are lots of things missing here, but what I’m tremendously pleased at, frankly, is that it started a discussion. Instead of people saying, “He didn’t write about that, so let’s forget that,” people say, “He didn’t write about that!” [laughs]

    JS: Yes, and now, “Let’s undertake the work.” It’s a wonderful catalyst for what I think will be a generation of people who are working on these questions, which again, have such existential import.


    "Why Do I See the World So Differently?" | Comment Magazine. The whole interview of Charles Taylor (CT) by Jamie Smith (JS) is great, but this is my favorite part. A vast comprehensive narrative like A Secular Age (or for that matter Sources of the Self) is not meant to end the conversation but to deepen, enrich, and propel it. The best readers of A Secular Age will be engaged in critical reflection on it, in charitable dispute with it. But it’s a massive and, to my mind, necessary achievement — one of the most important books of our time.

  • August 13, 2014 9:17 am


    In Afghanistan, we patrolled in big, armored trucks. We wore uniforms that conveyed the message, “We are a military force, and we are in control right now.” Many Afghans saw us as occupiers.

    And now we see some of our police officers in this same way. “The militarization of law enforcement is counter-productive to domestic policing and needs to stop,” tweeted Andrew Exum, a former Army infantry officer.

    If there’s one thing I learned in Afghanistan, it’s this: You can’t win a person’s heart and mind when you are pointing a rifle at his or her chest.


    This Is The Terrifying Result Of The Militarization Of Police

  • August 13, 2014 9:15 am

    "Set the douche bags aside, and some of the remaining comments do have value—I agree! But that’s a strange response, falsely set up in opposition to those who make the case for removing commenting functionality from a publisher’s website. An argument for the end of comments isn’t actually an argument against the value of comments. They just don’t belong at the end of or alongside posts, as if they’re always some extension of or relevant to the original. They belong on personal blogs, or on Twitter or Tumblr or Reddit, where individuals build a full, searchable body of work and can be judged accordingly. Hell, put them all on Medium, and let Evan Williams try to sell the douche bags to BMW. As Annemarie Dooling pointed out on Wired today, you’re not going to scare off all of the trolls by forcing commenters to use their real names on your site—that’s why publishers that have implemented Facebook’s commenting platform have some of the same problems everyone else does—but, if done right, you can push them under the bridge and make that bridge easy for everyone else to identify and avoid while at the same time encouraging a more thoughtful, considered dialogue that takes place across sites and between publishers."

    Just Kill All of the Comments Already