Monday, July 28, 2008

Literary Impressions of Aging: A Book Review

To delve into The Art of Growing Older: Writers on Living and Aging, by Wayne Booth (U. of Chicago Press 1992) is to discover, or rediscover, that the world’s literary greats have had a lot to say through the centuries on the topic of aging. This book, which I recently discovered, is a journey through the literary world by respected University of Chicago literature scholar Wayne Booth (1921-2005), author of The Rhetoric of Fiction and many other books.

From Sophocles to Euripides to Milton to Wordsworth, Byron, Browning, T.S. Eliot, and far beyond, writers have dealt, as we all do, with the challenges of aging and/or the contemplation of it. Toward the end of his introduction, Wayne Booth quotes Cicero, who wrote this in his early sixties: “For me, writing this book has been so delightful that it has not only erased all the petty annoyances of old age but has also made old age soft and pleasant.” As he wrote this book, Wayne Booth added, “At seventy one, which doesn’t feel at all to me like old age, I can say the same to you: Join me, friends, in this distinctively modern adventure, the almost certain journey into old age.”

Beautifully tied together by Booth’s incisive commentary, the poems and prose excerpts in this book are divided into an introduction, “Feeling Older,” and three parts: “Facing the Facts: Losses, Fears, and Lamentations,” “Cures, Consolations, Celebrations,” and “A Further Harvest.” I find it interesting that the “Cures, Consolations, Celebrations” section is by far the longest, indicating Booth’s own positive view of aging. I hope that’s a universal trend.

W. B. Yeats, in “Sailing to Byzantium,” laments in the first stanza, “That is no country for old men. The young / In one another’s arms, birds in the trees / . . . Caught in that sensual music all neglect / Monuments of unageing intellect.” However, he finds solace in his hope to escape, in artistic, non-human form, to a golden bough from which to sing of “What is past, or passing, or to come.”

Lighter and more humorous views of aging are included as well. In “Life Begins at 80,” Frank C. Laubach wrote, “If you survive until you are 80, everybody is surprised that you are still alive. They treat you with respect just for having lived so long. Actually they seem surprised that you can walk and talk sensibly. So please, folks, try to make it to 80. If you ask me, life begins at 80.”

I like that fact that Booth democratically includes some less-than-famous writers: Minnie Hodapp, at the age of 92, wrote in “I Haven’t Lost My Marbles Yet!” “I sometimes feel a bit bereft / Of youthful eyes and ears-- / But when I think of all that’s left / My trouble disappears. / So life goes on without upset / ‘Cause I ain’t lost no marbles yet.” Great poetry? No, but I like Hodapp’s spirit.

With an index and pages of notes and sources, this is a scholarly book, but its appeal should extend beyond literature majors. As Booth says, “You can make a good start on a reading program that can well last for the rest of your life by consulting first the books I praise as I go along and then the booklists provided by the ten works I list following the endnotes. . . . Spend a year on those lists, and first thing you know you’ll have become an expert and people will begin calling you a gerontologist.” However, if you’re just looking for inspiration and interesting quotes about growing older, this book is the ultimate source.

Copyright 2008 by Marlys Marshall Styne

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