Joyce’s method in this book of essays is to analyze the Covid Age through great works of literature, poetry and history, using them as a lens through which to focus critical thinking. Art is far more than mere entertainment, or some enjoyable but unnecessary frill. Even popular culture such as songs and movies—to the extent it relies on the great themes of art—can be a source of deep meaning. History itself began from the storytelling impulse, the basis of narrative. Essays are simply a more direct way of critically addressing the stories we tell each other in a culture. And it’s clear that now more than ever, the narratives we hear in the media are in need of challenging.
Joyce is following in the tradition of great essayists such as Montaigne, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. These writers didn’t see themselves as experts but as insatiably curious intellects using the Socratic method to explore anything that interested them. “From the start I resonated with the original concept of the essay, from the French ‘assai,’ to try,” writes Joyce in the Preface. “For me the open-ended form of the essay inspired a creative optimism, a confidence I could at least become conversant in the language. It left me free to play in the field of ideas.” Most importantly, Words From the Dead helps the reader cultivate a facility for pattern recognition based on the precedents of history and literature. “That is my hope for this book, to bring consolation, critical thinking and clarity to readers devastated in their various ways by the Covid Age.”
Joyce provides a critical analysis of our times that draws on an astonishingly wide reading list of nearly 50 books, spanning a historical timeline from the 5th century BC to the present. From the ancient Taoist sages Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, through the writers of immortal literature, to more recent critical commentators such as Karl Popper, Arnold Toynbee, John Ralston Saul and Michael Rectenwald, Words From the Dead digs deep for its perspectives. Joyce’s 30-year career as a freelance journalist and author of 10 books provides a solid research foundation for the book, with over 600 reference footnotes.