Columns

Aging one good quote at a time 2016.06.15

By DAVID GREEN

When writer Joshua Prager was about to turn 44, he looked forward to the event because he knew it would be a fulfilling year. That's what he read in a book.

It wasn't a book about aging or a sociological study. It was from Normal Mailer's non-fiction novel called "The Armies of the Night."

"He felt his own age, 44, felt as if he were a solid embodiment of bone, muscle, heart, mind, and sentiment to be a man, as if he had arrived."

That was good enough for Prager. He's collected literary quotes pertaining to age and assembled them into a book called "One Hundred Years."

Prager recently talked about his book on a TED Talk radio program and spoke about how everyone, everywhere, experiences similar patterns as they grow up. It follows the same great and inescapable sequence, he said.

Prager's talk started off with a quote by Robert Penn Warren from "Blackberry Winter" about a nine year old.

"When you are nine years old, what you remember seems forever, for you remember everything and everything is important and stands big and full and fills up Time and is so solid that you can walk around it and around it like a tree and look at it."

That seems apt for a fourth-grader.

Prager took Jean-Jacques Rousseau's words from "émile" for 16.

“At sixteen, the adolescent knows about suffering because he himself has suffered, but he barely knows that other beings also suffer.”

Poet Arthur Rimbaud wrote in 1870, "No one is serious at seventeen when lindens line the promenade."

Thirty is one of those iconic ages like 16 and 21. F. Scott Fitzgerald gave a bleak outlook: "Thirty, the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm, of thinning hair."

Fortunately, Prager didn't let it stand there. He adds a quote from Thomas Mann's book "Joseph and His Brothers."

“At thirty a man steps out of the darkness and wasteland of preparation into active life. It is the time to show oneself, the time of fulfillment.” 

The book shows turning points in life and gives readers the opportunity to learn about themselves from people who have already been there.

Prager talks about the shared patterns this way: "the wonders and confinement of childhood; the emancipation and frustrations of adolescence; the empowerment and millstones of adulthood; the recognitions and resignations of old age."

The host of the TED Talk program, Guy Raz, asked about his own age and didn't really like the results: "When we are 41, we all think it would be nice to make a fresh start. It's the kind of thing we laugh at when we're 42." That was from V.S. Naipaul's story "Guerrillas."

Forty-one. That must have been the year I almost applied for a public relations job at Northern Michigan University—the fresh start that I sought—although I don't recall laughing about it later.

Prager notes that each beginning decade is felt like a slap in the face, but then acceptance comes in the middle before it's disrupted once again by the new decade.

For example, Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote in "The Idiot" about the age of 55, calling it a "flowering time of existence when the real enjoyment of life begins."

And then there's 65, an age of particular interest to me. Doris Lessing wrote in "Love Again," "She found herself at sixty-five telling younger friends that there was nothing to getting old, quite pleasurable really, for if this or that good took itself off, then all kinds of pleasures unsuspected by the young presented themselves, and one often found oneself wondering what the next surprise would be."

Well said, Doris.

Life is a series of tipping points and so many of them are apparent in retrospect. But the challenge, Prager says, is to live enough in the here and now so that you can almost notice the tipping points as they happen.

Prager quotes Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet whose words touch on every year of the hundred. Hikmet remind you to appreciate something you might be taking for granted: "You know that living is the most real, the most beautiful thing."