“Books have gotten me this far in life. I don’t see why I’d stop now!”
Those were the words of Marla when I asked her if she ever thought she’d stop reading so much. She is an inveterate bookworm, and even when she’s taking day trips, she’s got a paperback tucked away somewhere in her bag, ready to be pulled out.
Once I asked her if she preferred fiction or nonfiction, and to say she threw me a quizzical look would be an understatement. It was less throwing shade than throwing a total solar eclipse. She looked at me as if I asked if she wanted air or water today.
“I love ‘em both,” she explained. “Fiction takes me inside other people, but so does nonfiction. It takes me inside the brain of an author. They explore ideas, or history, or themselves. I don’t see much difference, really. Fiction is truth, and nonfiction is creative. At least, if they do it right.”
We agree, and we hope that we did it right in our list of 9 novels about aging and growing old. But this week we’re going to look at nonfiction. These come in many different varieties, but they all speak to the promise and the difficulties of aging. They speak to how we live now, and how we can help change attitudes about older adults.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. Indeed, aging is one of the hottest avenues of nonfiction publishing, thanks largely to the huge and growing number of Baby Boomer retirees. With such an ever-expanding body of literature, there will be a lot on our list of 9 nonfiction books about growing old and enjoying life that we miss. So be sure to let us know your favorites!
The Types of Nonfiction
As we said, this is not a complete list of books (we’ve left out drama and poetry, though we may get to those at some point). It’s not even a total list of nonfiction. But in reviewing the literature about aging, there were several kinds of books that stood out.
- Sociology books. These talk about attitudes toward aging, how they are changing, and what that means.
- Self-help/motivational. These provide a guide toward living your best life, in everything from maintaining your health to making friends to taking up hang-gliding in the Pyrenees.
- Memoirs. From the very famous to the obscure, people have always been interested in the lives of others, including their aging process. Memoirs of a person’s experience with this part of life aren’t usually just full of humor and mordant observations, they help us prepare for and understand our own lives.
Needless to say—and as you’ll see,—there is a lot of overlap in the categories. It isn’t cut-and-dry. Like everything else in life, there are no clear answers, but that’s exciting. These nine books cover a wide range of topics, and we know you’ll find something that resonates with you, inspires you, and helps you see yourself and the world just a little bit differently.
9 Best Nonfiction Books About Aging
- Aging and the Digital Life Course. David Prendergast and Chiara Garattini, editors. This collection of essays and papers highlights how technology has changed how we age. The essays don’t just cover technological developments, but serve as a guide for how older adults can navigate this new world and use technology to make life more full and healthy. The essays cover tops as varied and gaming and robotics, advances in caregiving and how to manage dementia and chronic disease. It covers reality and virtual reality. We’ve covered the same subject in our Technology Section, but this book is a rich exploration of the issues by world-recognized experts.
- This Chair Rocks. Ashton Applewhite. We were grateful to have Dr. Applewhite speak at IOA just over a year ago, touring with her book about new ways to look at aging and death. Aging is a time of celebration and accomplishment. This is a fiercely activist book about combating ageism, both in society and in the way we act toward ourselves and others. And it’s funny!
- Cicero’s How to Grow Old. Marcus Tullius Cicero. This book is certainly a little different than our modern takes on aging. The Roman philosopher and statesman was exiled to his estate by Caesar and wrote about getting older. These are his works on this subject, which we recognize not for their antiquity, but for their universality. He may have been writing in the shadow of Caesar, but the lessons remain true today. For instance: “For old age is respected only if it defends itself, maintains its rights, submits to no one, and rules over its domain until its last breath.”
- Aging Thoughtfully. Martha Nussbaum and Saul Levmore. A prickly sort of book, this is a conversation about aging by two philosophers who discuss everything from economics to skincare to love. The two often delve into the esoteric and dive deeply into a huge number of topics. Because of that, it isn’t the easiest book, but it is full of warmth and erudition, education and humanity. The subtitle, “Conversations about Retirement, Romance, Wrinkles, and Regret,” says it all.
- The New Old Me. Meredith Maran. After retirement, Meredith lost her best friend and her life savings, and then was left by her wife. At 60, she was starting over and reinventing herself. Described as a “lusty, kickass, post-divorce memoir,” this is an LGBT memoir about growing old in southern California, an area that worships youth. Meredith doesn’t let that bother her. She just keeps going.
- Speak, Memory. Vladimir Nabakov. One of the all-time great memoirs, the brilliant author of Lolita and Pale Fire examines not just his youth and his life, but the nature of his memory. Was he remembering right? What was he making up? What was he forgetting? All of our lives are made up of the stories we tell ourselves, and Nabokov brilliantly examines the tension between what we believe happened and what might have actually happened. It’s a great way to understand how we remember things and how we don’t.
- I Remember Nothing. Nora Ephron. The sadly-late Ephron has a memoir about getting older that is seemingly frothier than Nabokov’s, but it contains just as much wisdom. Full of great stories and self-deprecating wit, the TV and movie giant takes a look at her life, where she’s been, and where she wanted to go. That she was taken too soon to get there tints the book with tragedy, but her insight, wit, humor, and love will shine even through your tears.
- Being Mortal. Atul Gawande. An enormous bestseller, Gawande writes about the fundamental fact of humanity: that we are mortal and that we are aware of our mortality, an awareness which grows as we age. Gawande explores the history of how we deal with the inevitability of death and helps us understand what dying means. It is learned, sober, and compassionate, with thoughtfulness and a searing, searching mind evident on every page. It might not give you every answer, but will help you figure out the questions.
- The Year of Magical Thinking. Joan Didion. Joan Didion is one of the great writers of the 20th-century, beloved by the coolest people. When her husband died suddenly, literally in mid-sentence, she went into deep shock, entering the land of grief. She calls grief “the most general affliction”, but while we have all suffered it, and will all suffer it, it is difficult to explore. Didion takes us through her mind, through the reactions we have to grief, the alternations between numbness and rage, between sublime sorrow and the distracted day-to-day. It’s keenly, almost impossible-finely observed and funny. It’s hard and beautiful and challenging and welcoming and filled with sacred terror and holy grace. In other words, it is life in the reality of death.
Finding Your Book
As we said, nonfiction books about aging and growing old come in many varieties. You might be a memoir person, a historian, or a sociologist. That’s all great. There is certainly something for you. Think about the kind of books you like to read, and find one that fits. And then find one that doesn’t. For reading, like life, is all about exploration. It’s about turning a corner and not being sure what you’ll see. It’s about opening your eyes to a strange vista in an unknown and uncertain land and walking until you find your footing.
I’ll leave the last word to Marla.
“Reading for me is about getting angry. It’s about being challenged. It’s about falling in love and falling out of it again. It’s just everything. It’s life between those covers, you know? That’s why I never want my book to close.”
At Institute on Aging, our programs and services help older adults, their families, and caregivers explore aging together, through good times and bad, as an adventure and a journey. Contact us today to learn more.