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

  • September 17, 2014 9:40 am


    He said a day came at the hospital when his doctors summoned him down to a room, where he sat “like a monkey, hunched over on a stool,” while about 10 people looked at him. At this point, he was labor-camp thin. “Unshaved for weeks.”

    One of them said, “You’re very sick, and you’re very psychotic, and we can take care of you.”

    They told him they wanted him to undergo electroconvulsive therapy. He could take time to think about it. A nurse led him back into the hallway and down to his room.

    The news destroyed him. Not because he didn’t believe them, that it was the best thing for him, nor even because he feared the pro­cedure itself (though naturally it terrified him to face it), but because he believed it would mean the end of him as a writer. That his talent would be scattered. His brains scrambled. The mechanism disassembled. Not to write? A living death. What would it even mean to go about your day?

    Also he felt that it was, he said, “a confirmation that I would never leave hospitals.”

    He sat down on a chair. “Not 20 minutes later,” he said, “a patient called out, ‘Mr. Antrim,­ there’s a phone call for you.’ ” He shuffled down to the phones near the medication dispensary. He picked up.

    “Donald,” a voice said, “this is Dave Wallace. I heard you were in bad shape.”


    Donald Antrim and the Art of Anxiety -

  • September 16, 2014 7:40 pm
  • September 16, 2014 6:27 pm
  • September 16, 2014 5:33 pm

    "Future shock is over. Apple Watch reveals that we suffer a new affliction: . The excitement of a novel technology (or anything, really) has been replaced—or at least dampened—by the anguish of knowing its future burden. This listlessness might yet prove even worse than blind boosterism or cynical naysaying. Where the trauma of future shock could at least light a fire under its sufferers, future ennui exudes the viscous languor of indifferent acceptance. It doesn’t really matter that the Apple Watch doesn’t seem necessary, no more than the iPhone once didn’t too. Increasingly, change is not revolutionary, to use a word Apple has made banal, but presaged."

    Future Ennui

  • September 16, 2014 9:16 am
    Fire at Yosemite, by Darvin Atkeson. Via @pourmecoffee on Twitter. View high resolution

    Fire at Yosemite, by Darvin Atkeson. Via @pourmecoffee on Twitter.

  • September 12, 2014 11:07 am

    "In romantic thought, repetition is the enemy of freedom, the greatest force of repression both in the mind and in the state. Outside romanticism, repetition has a very different import: it is the sustaining and renewing power of nature, the basis for all art and understanding…. Repetition lost its moral value only with the spread of the industrial machine and the swelling of the romantic chorus of praise for personal originality. Until two hundred years ago virtually no one associated repetition with boredom or constraint. Ennui is ancient; its link to repetition is not. The damned in Dante’s Hell never complain that their suffering is repetitive, only that it is eternal, which is not the same thing."

    — Edward Mendelson, Early Auden

  • September 12, 2014 10:45 am

    Killer Over the Rainbow

    I wrote this for the Oxford American a long time ago (Issue 27/28). I’ve added YouTube links.

    Forget about the marriage — his third, her first — to the thirteen-year-old cousin, Myra Gail Brown. (“I plumb married the girl, didnít I?” he asked, plaintively, not comprehending the outrage that almost ruined his career; to him, it wasn’t as though he had seduced and abandoned her.) Forget that both Jimmy Swaggart and Mickey Gilley are his cousins. Forget all the stories — for example, the one about how his career as a preacher-to-be ended when he was expelled from Bible college for turning the hymns he played into raucous roadhouse anthems. Forget the Lewis Ranch, in Nesbit, Mississippi, that scaled-down Graceland which occasionally gets attached by the IRS but currently features for its guests “The Killer’s Kar Kollection.” Forget the plain-faced bragging: “My only regret in life,” he said not long ago, “is that I’ve never sat in the audience and watched a Jerry Lee Lewis show.” There are many other things people claim he said, most of them being braggadocious too; forget all of them.

    Of course, I’m asking too much. Long, long ago Jerry Lee Lewis became those stories, those reports, those scandals: taken together, they constitute The Killer. But every now and then I almost forget, and when that happens I hear the songs. Not “Great Balls of Fire,” not “Whole Lotta Shakiní Goin’ On.” I doubt I’ll ever be able to hear those again. But take another song, a relatively unknown one: when “Great Balls of Fire” came out in 1957, the B-side was a Hank Williams cover, “You Win Again.” When Hank Sr. did it, it was terrific, a classic guitar-based country blues. But Jerry Lee and his piano take it altogether elsewhere: the rolling boogie-woogie bass line in the left hand, sounding almost like Fats Waller at times, the gospel chords and blues licks with the right, the max-reverb vocal soaring above it all — it’s a masterpiece, nothing less, and though Hank wrote the song Jerry Lee makes it utterly his own. Listening to “You Win Again” you wonder, for a moment, why Elvis is Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis just another “legend of rock and roll.” You think, the momentum could have swung the other way.

    But, largely because of the disastrous marriage to Myra in 1958, it didn’t. When the news got out, promoters canceled Lewis’s concert dates and record store managers swept his records off the shelves. It would be the better part of a decade before Jerry Lee could reassemble his career into something reasonably whole, and he achieved the reassembly, in large part, by preserving and even exaggerating every quirky trait that he had become famous for in those early days: the heavy-fisted glissandos, the constant thundering boogie rhythms, the vocal squeals and hiccups — and yes, stomping on the piano, that kind of thing too. But eventually Lewis extracted a kind of magnificence even from self-parody.

    Twenty-three years after “You Win Again” he released his version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” in his hands a song completely without restraint or taste. “You Win Again” sounds demure in comparison. Someone once said that Casablanca is a great movie not because it avoids film clichés, but because it joyfully employs every possible cliché into its two hours; Jerry Lee’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is like that. He simply wonít acknowledge the clash between his trademark mannerisms and the song’s style and structure: he takes the old classic and unhesitatingly filters it through his sensibility, making no compromises and taking no prisoners. It goes in Judy Garland and comes out the Killer. As I listen to the song, a part of me says that he’s simply crazy, laughably crazy; but I also recall that we sometimes have another name for this abject refusal to swerve or be sidetracked. That other part of me says: if this ain’t genius I don’t know what is.

  • September 12, 2014 10:22 am

    Today just got 10X better. You’re welcome.

  • September 12, 2014 8:03 am
  • September 12, 2014 8:03 am


    That Confucius’s characterization of the [Zhou] period as a golden age may have been an idealization is irrelevant. Continuity with a “golden age” lent his vision greater authority and legitimacy, and such continuity validated the rites and practices he advocated. This desire for historical authority and legitimacy—during a period of disrupture and chaos—may help to explain Confucius’s eagerness to present himself as a mere transmitter, a lover of the ancients. Indeed, the Master’s insistence on mere transmission notwithstanding, there can be little doubt that from his study and reconstruction of the early Zhou period he forged an innovative—and enduring—sociopolitical vision. Still, in his presentation of himself as reliant on the past, nothing but a transmitter of what had been, Confucius established what would become something of a cultural template in China. Grand innovation that broke entirely with the past was not much prized in the pre-modern Chinese tradition. A Jackson Pollock who consciously and proudly rejected artistic precedent, for example, would not be acclaimed the creative genius in China that he was in the West. Great writers, great thinkers, and great artists were considered great precisely because they had mastered the tradition—the best ideas and techniques of the past. They learned to be great by linking themselves to past greats and by fully absorbing their styles and techniques. Of course, mere imitation was hardly sufficient; imitation could never be slavish. One had to add something creative, something entirely of one’s own, to mastery of the past.

    Thus when you go into a museum gallery to view pre-modern Chinese landscapes, one hanging next to another, they appear at first blush to be quite similar. With closer inspection, however, you find that this artist developed a new sort of brush stroke, and that one a new use of ink-wash, and this one a new style of depicting trees and their vegetation. Now that your eye is becoming trained, more sensitive, it sees the subtle differences in the landscape paintings, with their range of masterful techniques an expression. But even as it sees the differences, it recognizes that the paintings evolved out of a common landscape tradition, in which artists built consciously on the achievements of past masters.


    The vision of Confucius

  • September 11, 2014 11:08 am
  • September 11, 2014 8:01 am


    Ekaterina Panikanova


  • September 10, 2014 3:37 pm

    "[A] kimono is made from exactly one bolt of fabric. The way the pattern of a kimono is constructed, not one scrap of fabric remains after the garment is completed. Once the kimono showed signs of wear, it began a long line of transformations - from Sunday best to an everyday item of clothing. When it was further worn, the kimono would be used as a sleeping gown or shortened to make an outdoor jacket. When further worn, the jacket would be turned into a bag or an apron. Finally, layers of scraps were sashiko quilted together into dust cloths. But sashiko was also used to strengthen fabric and in the north, it was used to secure layers of fabric together for protection against the elements. What began as utilitarian stitching began to be used as a decorative element as well and patterns evolved from the daily lives of the quilters."

    — Sashiko by Cortney Heimerl (via lizettegreco)

  • September 10, 2014 9:06 am


    “As the nights get darker, look no further than our latest item. Take a glance in this fascinating art journal, the ‘Anatomia Humani Corporis’, ultimate Renaissance anatomical sketchbooks – scientific masterpieces with lucid insights into the functioning of the human body.”


  • September 10, 2014 9:05 am


    I don’t have any advice [for younger writers]. You are asking me to live in an era other than the one that formed me. But I will tell you this: An editor in New York told me the other day that, even as the reading audience for serious prose has diminished, the unsolicited manuscripts she receives are better than ever. Even while I think we are leaving the splendid Victorian age of serious popular literature—novels and poetry—we may be entering the Elizabethan Age, when few in London read, but there was an intensity of thought and beauty to the prose, and the poetry, and, of course, the plays.

    Religion still reveres the book—just visit a yeshiva if you want to see devotion to the weight of the holy word. But in our secular lives the digital revolution seems to have eroded the great age of the middle-class reader. And without readers what are we? Half-writers whose sentences are never completed by the stranger’s eyes.

    I tell young writers not to give a single sentence away. Charge for every noun! Beyond the matter of strategy, the question really is whether our society needs complicated thought or expressions of beauty that reveal themselves only slowly and with difficulty. The question is whether a civilization can forget the pleasure of difficult, beautiful writing so thoroughly as to ignore its loss.


    Richard Rodriguez