A quick glance at the literary canon would seem to imply that most novels are about the young. After all, we’re meant to believe, it is only youth that has passion, that has adventure, that has romance. Only youth is worth writing about.
Well, with all due respect to every angry young poet who wants to emulate Rimbaud and die young, we have to say that’s nonsense. At Institute on Aging, we know that aging is no end to life’s adventures or life’s romance, and certainly, it is not an end to life’s passion. All stages of life are part of a vast sprawling novel: the story of you.
That’s why there are actually many novels that deal with aging, its pains and hopes, its longing and nostalgia, its fears and triumphs, loss and gain, regrets and satisfactions. Indeed, some of the great works of literature deal with this amazing, crucial, and beautiful time in life.
The Roman philosopher Terance said, “I am human; let nothing be alien to me.” We feel the same about literature. There is no time in life that isn’t ripe for writing about. Aging and growing old is just as beautiful, just as magical, and just as literary as any other time in life. So let’s look at nine novels about aging that reflect this amazing time in life.
Why Reading About Growing Older is Important (for Everyone!)
We get why there might be some resistance. After all, if you are already an older adult, you know what it is like. Why read about it? Why not read about thrones and the games played on them?
Well, that’s not such a bad thing to read about, I guess. But there are also a lot of good reasons we enjoy, and, indeed, need art that is a reflection of where we are, or where we are going. Writers have wisdom about how to make the most of life. They have insight about the quirks and aches and subtle joys of aging. The artistic condition helps us learn more about our own lives and also helps us learn about lives that are different from ours.
That’s important no matter how old you are. Maybe you have a loved one in your life who is aging and you want to understand them more. Literature can help that. Maybe you are a caregiver and want to develop deeper empathy for your aging loved one. Literature can help that. Or maybe you feel like you might be aging one day (which is a pretty good bet, time’s arrow and all) and want to understand more about it.
No matter what stage of life you’re in, reading about aging is always a good and valuable thing. These nine books are a great place to start.
The Top 9 Novels About Aging
- A Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man, Joseph Heller. This is the last novel by Heller, author of the all-time classic Catch-22. While it never rises to the heights of his first book (but then, few American novels do) it is sweet and funny and honest about growing older, full of bawdy humor and the realization that art doesn’t have to end just because you are older. It is thinly autobiographical and not just a great look at aging, but a wonderful way to say goodbye to an American legend.
- Tirra Lirra by the River, Jessica Anderson. At 70, Nora returns home to the Australian town in which she grew up, reflecting with humor and grace on the life she lived as she fills her grown children in on the secrets of the neighborhood and of her life. Her memory is imperfect, but so are all the stories we tell about ourselves. What it is, in the end, is a meditation on how every life is full of mysteries and secrets and private thoughts. Every life is a universe.
- Those Foolish Things, Deborah Moggach. Retirees from England move to India to a retirement community that doesn’t exactly have all the amenities they expected, but they discover a whole lot more. If this sounds like The Best Marigold Exotic Marigold Hotel (covered in our senior movie night), it’s because this is the book the film is based on. While the movie is wonderful, the novel is a little less quirky and a little more about the things we truly need…and what we don’t. The difference between the two is reflected in the title, I think.
- A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Backman. Sometimes in life, you see people who you don’t consider as people. They are cranky, they seem mean, they don’t appear to be the kind of people you want to deal with. And when they are older, we often just write them off as curmudgeons and forget about them. Ove, however, is hard to forget. As this Swedish book reminds us, older people all have stories of lives fully lived, replete with the experiences that have shaped them into the people they are. This is truly a book that will make you laugh and cry at the beauty, absurdity, and pain of the human condition and remember the unexpected connections possible between us.
- The Little Old Lady Who Broke All The Rules, Catherina Ingelman-Sunderberg. Frothy, daring, and fun, this novel is about old women who decide to rob banks. It’s light-hearted and goofy, but there is a real message underneath the derring-do and perfectly-crafted quips: never overlook anyone. Never write anyone off.
- Look Homeward, Angel, Thomas Wolfe. OK, this is a weird one, since it is the quintessential “angry young man” novel. But while Eugene Gant’s story dominates the last 2/3rds of the novel, the beginning is a perfect encapsulation of the long and frightful life lived by W.O and Eliza Gant, how time can bridle and bind people, and the impact it has on us. While this isn’t hopeful, exactly, there is beauty in it, and it is a perfect picture of how we change as we age. Except for possibly James T. Farrell or C.E. Morgan, no one writes of both youth and age as well as Wolfe.
- A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler. Tyler recently told The Baltimore Sun that she’s “been interested in death as one of the quintessential human experiences, having long comforted myself with the thought that if everyone else can do it, I can do it, too.” That might sound flippant, but it really isn’t: it is essential. We all go through death, and our attitudes about it are changing. Tyler’s newest novel deals with aging and facing death in a way that few books ever have. It’s an important and beautiful novel about the one thing we all have in common.
- Lila, Marilynne Robinson. This is the third book in the award-winning “Gilead” series, this one about two older ministers who are nearing the end of life. Like Blue Thread, Lila takes a serious and thoughtful look at an all-encompassing subject. Being Robinson, there is much more to it than this, of course, including scenes of terror and desperation (this isn’t a happy book, per se), but if you are looking for a gripping and powerful read, this is it.
- The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway. This is far from Papa’s best novel (that’s The Sun Also Rises), but while this title has graduated into cliché, the book still packs a punch. It’s about resolve and power in aging, about facing up to the world, and about knowing that you don’t always win, but you still wake up and face the sea. There is heroism in this minimalism, a heroism we can all achieve.
So yes, there are books that are fun and funny, and books that are sad and elegiac, and books that are scary and those that are sunny. There are novels that are obsessed with aging and there are those that treat it as just an outfit we’re wearing. There are novels that have picture-perfect memory and there are novels about forgetting. There are novels about gripping life tightly and holding onto it like you would a rocket bursting into the sky, and there are novels about letting go.
Every life has within it a story. Your life is a story. Reading fiction about old age can help you understand yours. It can help you understand who you are, where you’ve been, and where you are going. So curl up with a book, and get comfortable with the story of life itself.
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.