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

  • April 12, 2014 7:11 am
    comparison to other covers here

    comparison to other covers here

  • April 12, 2014 6:55 am

FOR HIRE practice run (draft one), quotes from Erin and Robin via Alan

I’m trying to imagine an organization that wouldn’t benefit from having Roberto in it. In the meantime, he’s a pure gift to anyone who looks for ideas online. View high resolution


    FOR HIRE practice run (draft one), quotes from Erin and Robin via Alan

    I’m trying to imagine an organization that wouldn’t benefit from having Roberto in it. In the meantime, he’s a pure gift to anyone who looks for ideas online.

  • April 11, 2014 5:49 pm


    When I saw University of Iowa English professor Adam Hooks bemoaning “relatable” on Twitter, I asked him what his experience had been with the word in the classroom. “‘Relatable’ is a sign of a failure to engage with the work or text, a failure to get beyond one’s own concerns to confront the unfamiliar and the uncomfortable,” he wrote to me in an email. In other words, the quest for the “relatable” circumscribes the expansion of empathy that you can gain through exposure to new things. When the word “relatable” really means “relevant to me,” as it often does in the classroom, anything outside the purview of “relatability” looks like it’s not worth examining.

    Hooks teaches Renaissance drama, and thinks that the unfamiliarity of that form provokes the use of “relatable” more frequently in his classroom: “Language is a factor,” he writes. “Students often find it very difficult, and so grasp for something to make it more comprehensible and familiar.” The problem arises when “relatability” becomes the sole interpretive lens.


    Rebecca Onion.. Preach it, people.

  • April 11, 2014 1:54 pm

    "Samuel Carter, an associate director at the Rockefeller Foundation, underscored that the very concept of regional planning is still a work in progress in the U.S. ‘A lot of people feel that it goes against the American character,’ he said. Ovink experiences that pushback on a regular basis. He told me that not long ago he was in New Jersey talking with residents hit by Sandy who were raising their houses on stilts. He laid out for them a future situation in which, rather than have each homeowner undertake such difficult and expensive work, the community would embrace measures to protect an entire region from flooding. The response, he said, was, ‘That would be a socialistic approach.’"

    How to Think Like the Dutch in a Post-Sandy World -

  • April 11, 2014 10:51 am

    Once More Around the Block with PEG

    Three brief points in response to PEG, with thanks for his continued efforts to converse in good faith:

    First, insofar as I have failed to pay sufficiently close attention to the ways PEG uses non-Catholic authors in developing his own thought, I am sorry and will earnestly try to do better.

    Second, his comparison between his ongoing New Distributism project and my biography of the prayer book is not really germane, because the latter is a history and every history is necessarily particular. Moreover, someone who is not an Anglican could have written that book, and maybe done it better than I did. By contrast, the attempt to articulate a New Distributism is a work of constructive public theology, which can only be done from within a religious tradition, and, further, necessarily raises the question of how broadly one defines that tradition. So: apples and cucumbers. But that leads me to the third and most important point:

    PEG writes, “A ”distinctively [Mere-]Christian theology of economics” sounds like a lovely, useful and important thing. That is simply not what I’m interested in doing.” That’s an excellent and perfectly fair answer. I just wish — and this is really the only and entire point I was making in my post that kicked all this off — I just wish that so many of my Catholic friends, and other Catholic thinkers I respect, didn’t have exactly this point of view. I keep saying, “Hey, if we serious Christians work and think together we may be able to make great progress on this intellectual issue or this practical political problem,” and almost always they say to me in return, though perhaps not quite as straightforwardly as PEG says it here, “That is simply not what I’m interested in doing.”

  • April 11, 2014 8:10 am

Wenceslaus Hollar, “Cia or Te Herbe” from Nieuhof, Johannes, 1618-1672.An embassy from the East-India Company of the United Provinces, to the Grand Tartar Cham, Emperour of China, 1669.
Houghton Library, Harvard University
One of the earliest Western depictions of tea. There is an 18th century tea caddy at the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge decorated with this image. View high resolution


    Wenceslaus Hollar, “Cia or Te Herbe” from Nieuhof, Johannes, 1618-1672.
    An embassy from the East-India Company of the United Provinces, to the Grand Tartar Cham, Emperour of China, 1669.


    Houghton Library, Harvard University

    One of the earliest Western depictions of tea. There is an 18th century tea caddy at the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge decorated with this image.

  • April 11, 2014 8:08 am


    As the Yoderites and Hauerwasites have been telling us for some time, Christendom is dead. The religious right was its last, long susperation. Though there are millions of Christians in the U.S. and Europe, Christian faith no longer provides the moral compass, the sacred symbolism, or the telos for Western institutions. America’s Protestant establishment has collapsed. Neither evangelical Protestants nor Catholics nor a coalition of the two are poised to replace it. Christian America was real, but, whatever its great virtues and great flaws, it is gone, and the slightly frantic experiments have failed to revive the corpse. It’s past time to issue a death certificate.

    That’s a sobering conclusion, and it’s tempting for Christians to slink back to our churches. For innovative, visionary pastors and civic leaders, though, there are hundreds of realistic, locally based, ecumenically charged opportunities to foster experiments in Christian social and political renewal.

    Christendom is dead! Long live the micro-Christendoms!


    Peter Leithart

  • April 11, 2014 7:23 am

    A Response to PEG

    PEG responds graciously to my post from yesterday, but he misunderstands me, and in so doing partly confirms the point I make. He thinks I am asking him to be “wary of taking [his] faith seriously,” to stop thinking about Catholic social doctrine “as a Catholic,” and therefore to commit “a kind of intellectual self-mutilation.” Those would be pretty ridiculous things for me to ask, which is why I didn’t ask them.

    Nobody builds straw men like PEG builds straw men, as I have learned to my pain over the years. But I didn’t go into detail in that post, which makes misunderstandings more likely. So let me clarify and specify a bit, using PEG’s response to help me do so. I think a telling moment there comes when he writes, “if a non-Catholic government in a non-Catholic country explicitly built its reforming program on Rerum Novarum and Centesimus Annus, I’m pretty sure Pope Francis wouldn’t cry copyright infringement.” Well, I would hope not! But note the assumption: that Catholics are the ones with the ideas, and other people are free to use them. This made me smile because it manifests the approach to ecumenism that I’ve seen in many of my Catholic friends over the years: “You can be as much like us as you want to be! We don’t mind!”

    But what I was suggesting in my post was that I’d like to see more Catholic thinkers turn that around: that is, to acknowledge that Catholics don’t own all the good ideas, that other small-o orthodox (and perhaps even some rather heterodox) Christian traditions have something to contribute to the attempt to renew our political world, and that Catholic thinkers might benefit from seeking out some of those ideas — or at least to show themselves open to such ideas by describing their projects as, maybe, “a distinctively Christian theology of economics.” Because Catholics are Christians, are they not? Surely it’s not “intellectual self-mutilation” for a Catholic to call himself a Christian. And even that slight shift in emphasis can be both welcoming to others and a reminder that Christians from different traditions can learn from one another in substantive ways. It’s worth remembering that Chesterton made contributions to Distributist thought when he was still an Anglican.

    I might quote here from the great Catechism of the Catholic Church:

    818 “However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers …. All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church.”

    819 “Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth” are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: “the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements.” Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him, and are in themselves calls to “Catholic unity.”

    I have no doubt that PEG, like all my other Catholic friends, sees me and people like me as “brothers in the Lord.” But what I think is often missing — and this was the concern I raised in my post — is the translation of that acceptance into both intellectual and practical terms. Ecumenism, in the strongest sense of that term, is always going to be hard when Catholics are involved, because their ecclesiology makes it difficult for them to come to the discussion table with an openness to admitting error. (Balancing this with the need to be “open to conversion” was something that Cardinal Avery Dulles struggled with powerfully.) All the more reason, then, for us to focus on those areas — again, intellectual and practical — where we can find common cause and common achievement.

    Let us not be any more divided from one another than we have to be. As John Paul II wrote in Ut Unum Sint, echoing Lumen Gentium, “Dialogue is not simply an exchange of ideas. In some way it is always an ‘exchange of gifts.’”

  • April 10, 2014 8:37 pm
  • April 10, 2014 7:27 pm

    "Auden was harsh on what he considered attention-seeking. Once when a friend referred to a public occasion when Robert Frost had forgotten his lines, Auden was satirical: Frost hadn’t forgotten his lines — he was just trying to steal the scene. Auden said to me, ‘If you’ve only just written a poem, you don’t forget the lines.’"

    A voice of his own. The occasion was JFK’s inaugural, where Frost did not exactly forget his lines but seemed to have trouble reading what he had written (though if he needed to read them then he had indeed forgotten a poem he had just composed). He proceeded to recite, instead of his inaugural poem, “The Gift Outright.”

    I’m inclined to think that Auden was right, though. Maybe Frost disliked the new poem and preferred the old one. Maybe he liked playing the visually compromised old poet. In any case, the moment provoked a wonderful poem by Richard Wilbur which I’ll post here if I can find it.

  • April 10, 2014 6:50 pm

    Evangelicals and Catholics Apart

    Today I finished reading Jody Bottum’s An Anxious Age, and it’s a lovely book: smart and beautifully written. But it describes an America that I’m not especially familiar with: an America divided between a theologically-renewed JPII-style Catholicism and a “post-Protestantism” (Jody’s phrase) that’s the gaseous residue of an evaporated mainline Protestantism. The Christian world I know best as (a) a native-and-recently-returned Southerner and (b) a longtime resident in the evangelical mecca of Wheaton, Illinois simply plays no role in Jody’s story. I don’t know whether my puzzlement at that is a result of my limited perspective or Jody’s or both. But in any event the book left me feeling like an anthropologist from Mars, to almost coin a phrase, looking at an America that’s not any America I’ve directly known. I can’t help thinking that if Jody had seriously reckoned with, for example, Mark Noll (whom he cites once), George Marsden (whom he does not cite), or Eugene Genovese (ditto), he’d have produced a more complex book. Maybe not better; but I think more faithful to the richness of America-and-Christianity, an amalgamation that has a different feel when you’re resident in the Southern or evangelical provinces. Still, that could be my provincialism speaking.

    Let me announce an interest here: I have spent much of the last quarter-century looking for ways to connect evangelical urgency and Catholic tradition. My Anglicanism is just this, an attempt to be fully catholic and fully reformed — something I tried to express when I contributed to this page for All Souls Anglican, the church I helped to start in Wheaton — see the answer I wrote to the last question on that page. As I commented earlier today on Twitter, in the last twenty years I’ve seen theologically-serious Protestants become more and more respectful of and interested in Catholicism — but I have simultaneously seen many serious Catholics withdraw completely into a purely Catholic world, with little interest in other Christian traditions except to critique them — as, for instance, in Brad Gregory’s much-celebrated but (in my view) absurdly tendentious The Unintended Reformation, which blames almost everything bad in modern society on this vast and amorphous (but somehow unified) thing called “the Reformation.”

    (And I love you, Jody, but you use “Protestant” in a similar way in your book.)

    Or let me take two different, and differing, examples. My internet friend Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry has been writing a series of posts on what he calls the New Distributism — a topic in which I have expressed some interest — but he frames it as a “distinctive Catholic theology of economics,” and I’m not Catholic, at least not of the Roman variety, so I guess I’m not invited to this party.

    Or consider this: a manifesto on immigration reform that I, as someone appalled by anti-immigrant hysteria in America, might well sign on to — except that the Catholic authors of the manifesto emphasize that hostility to immigrants is not grounded in (for example) race but in “something deeply protestant and anti-Catholic” in the American mind, and that the corruption of the original American experiment is wholly Protestant: “The United States was founded by anarchic British Protestant immigrants, who oppressed and in many cases killed the local people, with a native claim to this land.” This is followed by an appeal that simply rules out non-Catholics: “May we, as Catholics, guided by the message of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas, stand and pray and even act in a way that gives voice to those who suffer in fear and pointless despair.”

    But do we really want to see immigration reform — or economic reform (hearkening back to PEG’s posts) — as distinctively Catholic issues? It seems to me that these are issues on which all Christians might benefit from thinking together. But not if Catholics persist in seeing soi-disant “Protestants” as their chief adversaries. Late in his book Jody writes that by the 2012 election “the ‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together’ project had failed.” No kidding.

  • April 10, 2014 2:49 pm

    Why Liberalism Needs Pluralism

    A subtler and more detailed account by Ross Douthat of the issue I raised in my response to Andrew S.

  • April 10, 2014 2:43 pm

    "My own instincts on the gay rights question have always been classically liberal/small-c conservative/libertarian. I think hate is an eternal part of the human condition, and that ridding oneself of it is a personal, moral duty not a collective, political imperative. I never want to live in a society in which homophobes feel obliged to shut up. I believe their freedom is indivisible from ours. Their hate only says something about them, not me. I oppose hate crime laws for those reasons. And my attachment to open debate means constantly allowing even the foulest sentiments to be expressed – the better to confront them, expose them and also truly persuade people of the wrongness of their views – rather than pressuring them into submission or silence. Others have a different vision: that such bigotry needs extra punishment by the state (hence hate-crime laws), that bigots need to be constantly shamed, and that because of the profound evil of such thoughts, social pressure should be brought to bear to silence them. More to the point, past sins have to be recanted and repented before such bigots are allowed back into the conversation."

    The Quality Of Mercy « Andrew Sullivan. I’ve said it before, but maybe it’s worth repeating: no one ever holds the second position Andrew describes here without being very, verity confident that none of their cherished views will fall afoul of the law. This goes for liberals and conservatives, the religious and the anti-religious, all parties on all issues. Those who are aware of the ebbs and flows of history will be reluctant to employ a weapon that could eventually be turned against them; those who believe in the permanent dominance of Our Side will move ahead boldly with their prohibitions.

  • April 10, 2014 8:36 am

Photo of the Day: Surfing with Dolphins
Photography by Matt Hutton (Wickham, Australia); Kalbarri, Australia View high resolution


    Photo of the Day: Surfing with Dolphins

    Photography by Matt Hutton (Wickham, Australia); Kalbarri, Australia

  • April 10, 2014 8:34 am

    Earnest, Serious, Genuine Questions for People Who Support Brendan Eich’s Ouster from Mozilla

    If Brendan Eich’s support for California’s Proposition 8 makes him unsuitable to be the CEO of Mozilla …

    Would you allow him to hold a VP position there?

    How about a managerial position?

    Would you boycott a local coffee shop if he owned or managed it?

    What about a bank?

    In general, what positions should proponents of Proposition 8 be debarred from, and in what industries?

    If you agree with the position taken by the leadership of OKCupid — who wrote on their website, in reference to Eich and to anyone else who opposes gay marriage, “Those who seek to deny love and instead enforce misery, shame, and frustration are our enemies, and we wish them nothing but failure” — what degree of failure would be appropriate? Would unemployment be sufficient? Or does justice demand a more severe retribution?

    What other widely held views — Proposition 8 passed, which means that by definition Eich’s stance is neither marginal nor extremist — disqualify a person from leading an organization? For example:

    If it had become known that Brendan Eich believed that abortion should be illegal and had given money to pro-life organizations, would that have been grounds for dismissing him? If not, why not?

    If Brendan Eich had said that he did not think insurance companies should have to cover sex reassignment surgery, would that have been grounds for dismissing him? If not, why not?

    And finally, how far into a person’s past do you think it appropriate to look for evidence of heterodox opinions? Eich gave money to support Proposition 8 six years ago, but what if he had given money to a similar cause twelve years ago — would you still demand that he be fired or at least issue a formal apology for holding wrong views? In short, is there a statute of limitations on accountability for error?