A Visit to Vanity Fair by Alan Jacobs

It is hard to top the publisher’s description of A Visit to Vanity Fair:

These perceptive moral essays crackle with wit, intelligence, and a wide range of knowledge. A cultural hawk eye delivers relevant, down-to-earth meditations on the way we live now. “A Visit to Vanity Fair” blends personal reflection with cultural criticism to address such topics as reading with children, sitting with a dying friend, and watching TV documentaries.

I mean it really does “crackle with wit, intelligence, and a wide range of knowledge. and Jacobs is a “cultural hawk eye” who “delivers relevant, down-to-earth meditations” and “blends personal reflection with cultural criticism.

The sad thing is that I have had this book on my shelf for quite some time.  I have long been enamored with Jacobs and his writing.  I have read a number of his books and have followed his writing online for many, many years.  But like so many of the authors and topics I collect and mean to dive into, I get distracted and end up just dipping into a book here or there.  For the last year or so I have thought about trying to read as much of Jacobs catalog as I could but have mostly failed.  So I recently girded my loins, so to speak, and grabbed this book of the shelf and forced myself to concentrate and spend time reading until I finished.

And it was worth it. It truly is a wonderful collection of thought provoking and well crafted essays. Published nearly 20 years ago, it nevertheless feels as engaging and relevant as ever. Whether dealing with Bob Dylan or Harry Potter, Jacobs gets at issues that remain not frothy debates of the minute. Instead, philosophy, literature, faith and writing are explored with verve and wit.

Jacobs brings charity and honesty, humility and yet passion and strong beliefs.  It is a refreshing approach.

An Exchange of Fears (Chapter 4) is a deep and touching meditation on death and the fear of death; simple and yet profound, short and yet powerful. An sterling example of what the essay can be.  Not an academic treatise or philosophical argument but a meditation that takes its jumping off from a rather mundane event.

In On the Kill (Chapter 9) is a powerful and convicting argument against watching nature shows for frission of seeing animals get killed and eaten by other animals.

Lewis At 100 and Harry Potter’s Magic take on cultural touchstones with a particular insight into and yet a ability to step outside of evangelicalism thus giving the reader both understanding while also challenging common wisdom.

A Visit to Vanity Fair is a short book and a a quick read but each of the chapters are little diamonds.  I appreciated not only the thought provoking cultural criticism, and meditation on faith and literature, but the skill with which Jacobs practiced his craft.  It gives me something to aspire to when writing reviews or offering criticism of my own.

I’m going to keep recommit to digging into my collection of Jacobs’ writing which I have managed to put off reading for too long.

If this hasn’t convinced you to read it, here are a few more reviews:


Jacobs aspires to be an essayist in the manner of Samuel Johnson, C. S. Lewis, and George Orwell–one whose writing reflects belief in “a common moral code that all human beings should, and almost all do, recognize.” Such an essayist writes as one person among all others, discerning the good and the evil in things by that code’s standards, which, being commonly acknowledged, are what ultimately makes the arguments persuasive. Neither the code nor Jacobs’ ardent Christianity, however, upstages the subjects of the 15 highly readable, wonderfully literate essays in this book. Those subjects Jacobs sorts into two categories: cultural criticism and personal reflection. Essays in the former category include considerations of Bob Dylan as a religious thinker and the magic in the Harry Potter books; considerations in the latter category include using the Bible superstitiously, the fear of death, and the abundance of animals killing animals on “educational” TV programs. While inspiring us to think more deeply about his subjects, Jacobs makes us glad to have made his acquaintance.

Publishers Weekly

This absorbing collection of essays from Jacobs, an English professor at Wheaton College, invites readers on a leisurely mental walk across campus, a walk that quickens the powers of observation and suggests anew the joys of critical thinking. Jacobs combines a confident Christian worldview with personal humility, grace and a wry sense of humor. Many of his reflections stem from observations of everyday life: the selective nature of a children’s Bible, the concept of friendship, the place of computerized text in the history of books. Other pieces deal more directly with current cultural issues, like violent nature-based television programs or the extremely popular Harry Potter books. A few are the fruit of more specialized study the changing role of literary influence on American preaching, a visit to the life and work of a modern British poet, a self-deprecating look at “The Lives of Essayists.” While some readers may not care for these more idiosyncratic selections, many more will find in them fuel for further study. In his introduction, Jacobs posits that the “moral essay” could be “the ideal vehicle for moral reflection in a postfoundationalist age; it can present or narrate or proclaim a compelling vision of the Tao without making the mistake of arguing for it.” Jacobs’s essays succeed in reflecting this unusual goal, painting coherent pictures in an often incoherent world. They are also, to borrow a phrase from his discussion of the Harry Potter books, “a great deal of fun.”

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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