Shaming the Devil by Alan Jacobs

Close readers of this blog or who follow me on Goodreads, will recall that I’m working my way through Alan Jacobs books, catching up on those I haven’t read, and I further impressed with his skill as an essayist and thinker. He is able to hold the reader’s interest even as he explores weighty issue of literature, culture and faith.

After A Visit to Vanity Fair, which I finally was able to pull of my shelf and read, I read Shaming the Devil: Essays in Truthtelling which I had grabbed for my Kindle.


In the first part of the book, Jacobs contemplates the work of people whom he takes to be exemplary truth seekers: Rebecca West, W. H. Auden, Albert Camus, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Linda Gregerson, and Leon Kass.

He then engages writers who challenge the search for truth: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Iris Murdoch, Wole Soyinka, Philip Pullman, and Anne Carson.

The third section of the book consists of a single lengthy essay that pursues the provocative question of whether today’s computer technology helps or hinders us in our pursuit of truth.

His skills highlighted for me the vast gulf between casual blogging (me) and a talented essayist (Jacobs). It also makes me wish I could sit in on one of his classes. I have a feeling it would be both challenging and deeply rewarding.

I find reading the essays in large doses over the course of a weekend really allows the reader to see how the ideas and issues relate and interact. Despite being dated they shine with wisdom, wit and clarity.

Critics had a similar reaction at the time of publication.

As in his earlier collection, A Visit to Vanity Fair , Jacobs’s range of interests and the breadth of his reading is extraordinary, along with the depth of his Christian humanism … The tone here is somewhat more serious than in Vanity Fair , but never inaccessible, not least because Jacobs never takes himself too seriously. Notwithstanding the relatively conservative venues where Jacobs publishes, his writing is also utterly free of ideological cant, and his reading even of those with whom he disagrees is marked by generosity, humor and humility. Every writer longs for readers of Jacobs’s integrity and creativity; discerning readers will revel in the chance to let Jacobs read aloud, as it were, over their own shoulder. 

— Publishers Weekly

There are three things noted by PW that make Jacobs writing so appealing to me: the depth of his Christian humanism, the accessibility of his writing, and his not taking himself too seriously, and his generosity, humor and humility as he engages with writers with whom he disagrees.

The essays read not as lectures but as conversations exploring interesting topics with a very well read friend. They are not dumbed down, assuming you are not as well read or as smart as Jacobs, but neither are they haughty or intentionally dense and esoteric or academic. They assume just that you are interested in the the good, beautiful, and the true.

I highly recommend a trip through Jacobs back catalog. If like me you have enjoyed his writing over the years but never got around to his essay collections, check them out. You will be glad you did.

In a dozen essays on literature and culture, Jacobs reconfirms the impression he made in A Visit to Vanity Fair (2001) that he is the most personable of critics. The brutal opining of a Dale Peck (see Hatchet Jobs [BKL My 15 04]) may refresh with its frankness, but Jacobs demonstrates that taking a writer to task is more satisfying when it is one element of a holistic appreciation. The five essays in the central section here consider writers about whom Jacobs has strong reservations but whose achievements he recognizes and admires (with the exception of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, subject of the ironically entitled “The Only Honest Man”). Indeed, Jacobs considers Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka one of the two greatest living writers; it is the effects of political upheaval on Soyinka’s later writing that Jacobs rues. Even in the six approbatory pieces that open the book, on Auden (twice), Camus, Solzhenitsyn, poet Linda Gregerson, and bioethicist Leon Kass, Jacobs often places unflattering facts about his subjects in counterpoint to his great liking for them. In the long, concluding essay on creativity and the personal computer, Jacobs balances enthusiasm and skepticism, endorsement and reservation, couching the entire discussion, here as throughout, in the attempt to tell the truth, ordinary and ultimate, from a warmly intelligent Christian perspective.

— Booklist
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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