“No, that is the great fallacy, the wisdom of old men,” Ernest Hemingway famously wrote in his literary masterpiece Farewell to Arms. “They do not grow wise. They grow careful.”
That paragraph isn’t just beautifully written, it’s just so true. It’s the kind of observation that makes literature, both fiction and nonfiction, so valuable. Books, in the way they help us navigate the murky waters of life, have a way of illuminating the world. What does it actually mean to age? (You know, other than the fact that your hair turns gray and your body is palpably less spry.)
If you want the answers, or at least the deep thoughts of smart people struggling with those questions, you’ve got to pick up a book. Here’s your reading list on the topic—a comprehensive rundown of books that make the slide toward old age a little less scary. And for more amazing books to hop on, stat, check out The 5 Books Bill Gates Says You Should Read This Summer.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
$5; buy now at amazon.com
Oscar Wilde, the 19th century novelist, playwright, and taboo breaker, takes on the narcissistic obsession with youth. A young man named Dorian Gray realizes that his beauty will someday fade, and he’s upset that a painting of him won’t experience the same indignity. “I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful,” he complains. “But this picture will remain always young…. If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old!” He gets his wish, and ho boy, learns to regret it.
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
$3.99; buy now at amazon.com
Hemingway’s 1951 novella about an old fisherman named Santiago and his fight to catch a mighty marlin speaks to the heart of all men’s fears about aging—and whether the things that used to come easy are slipping away. And for more ways to face impending age with grace, learn the 100 Best Anti-Aging Secrets.
I Remember Nothing by Nora Ephron
$11.10; buy now at barnesandnoble.com
“The past is slipping away and the present is a constant affront,” writes Ephron in this touching and heartfelt reflections on reaching 69. “I can’t possibly keep up.”
Dave Barry Turns 50 by Dave Barry
$16; buy now at barnesandnoble.com
The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer tackles middle age for the Baby Boom Generation, and it’s exactly as hilarious as you’d think. “The transformation is comparable to the one Clark Kent goes through,” Barry writes. “He takes off his glasses and becomes Superman; you put on your reading glasses and become… Old Person.” And for more ways to view life like a humorist like Barry would, check out the 50 Puns So Bad They’re Actually Funny.
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg
$9.99; buy now at barnesandnoble.com
Two women from different generations bond over stories from the past. The movie version barely scratched the surface of this novel’s bittersweet reflections on growing old. “It’s funny, when you’re a child you think time will never go by,” writes Flagg. “But when you hit about twenty, time passes like you’re on the fast train to Memphis. I guess life just slips up on everybody. It sure did on me.”
Ending Up by Kingsley Amis
$7.95; but now at powells.com
This read is a darkly comic 1973 British novel about a group of old men and women living together in a retirement home. But these old-timers have no intention of fading quietly into the sunset. They’re more concerned with whether they’ll have enough booze to get them through the night. As Amis once explained, “It’s about five particular people who wouldn’t be behaving as they do if they weren’t old.” Think of it like bizarro Breakfast Club.
A Positively Final Appearance by Alec Guinness
$2.50; buy now at powells.com
You’re not going to find a better book about attending the funerals of old friends than this memoir, the last book by the guy who played Obi-Wan Kenobi. “Nothing is desperately important,” he writes. “And the joy of life is just looking at it.”
Letter to My Daughter by Maya Angelou
$10.49; buy now at powells.com
Angelous writes simple observations that will have you reeling for months, reconsidering everything you thought you knew about being older and more mature. “I am convinced that most people do not grow up,” she writes. “We marry and dare to have children and call that growing up. I think what we do is mostly grow old. We carry accumulation of years in our bodies, and on our faces, but generally our real selves, the children inside, are innocent and shy as magnolias.” And if you want to be as sagely parental as Angelou, learn the 40 Parenting Hacks for Raising an Amazing Kid.
The Coming of Age by Simone de Beauvoir
$23.05; buy now at amazon.com
How do we really treat our elderly? Beauvoir attempts to find out in this unsettling nonfiction account of what it means to grow old and more dependant. “Society cares about the individual only insofar as he is profitable,” she writes. “The young know this. Their anxiety as they enter in upon social life matches the anguish of the old as they are excluded from it.”
The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz
$25.69; buy now at amazon.com
This series of novels by the Egyptian author and Nobel Prize winner is, on its surface, just the chronology of a family over three generations. But it’s really about what it means to grow older in the midst of cultural and social changes, as what’s considered a traditional way of life is forced to adapt and evolve to modern ideas.
The Fallback Plan by Leigh Stein
$14.95; buy now at amazon.com
A woman moves back in with her parents after graduating from college and decides she’d rather re-read books from her childhood and hang out with old friends than figure out what she wants to do with her life. So, you know… fiction. When she babysits for neighbors who’ve lost a daughter, she gets a new perspective on her life, and what it means to leave the carefree collegiate life and venture into adulthood.
Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler
$8.94; buy now at amazon.com
You’d think that the 61-year-old retiree of “teaching fifth grade in a second-rate private boys’ school” would finally be able to enjoy some R&R. Not so for this novel’s protagonist, who gets attached by a burglar and ends up in the hospital, hiring an “external hard drive”—his fancy name for a nurse who helps him remember names and appointments—to ease him toward recovery.
Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life by Gail Sheehy
$15.29; buy now at target.com
According to this 1976 best seller, it’s not just childhood that falls into predictable patterns like “the terrible twos.” Every decade of adult life has its unique challenges and patterns, from the Trying 20s to the Catch-30s (when all of the choices that once worked perfectly are suddenly not so right anymore) to the Deadline Decade, between 35 and 45, “when you feel a sudden time-squeeze,” says Sheehy.
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
$13.60; buy now at target.com
Yes, fine, it’s a book about a guy who runs a record store and makes a lot of mix tapes. But it’s also ultimately about what it means to grow older, and realize that the obsessions of your youth need to evolve and change as you age. This is a story that reminds us that it’s okay to not get everything you want, and an adult relationship sometimes involve compromise.
Coda by Simon Gray
$13.86; buy now at powells.com
Four volumes of diaries that Gray began writing at 65 and continued through a battle with cancer and up until his death at 71. There are a lot of life lessons in the highs and lows of his final years, which the British playwright describes as “the beginning of my dying.”
Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide by Michael Kinsley
$8.95; buy now at powells.com
The political columnist and founding editor of Slate leads Baby Boomers through the minefield of middle age. “Sometimes I feel like a scout for my generation,” writes the man diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at 43, “sent out ahead to experience in my fifties what even the healthiest boomers are going to experience in their sixties, seventies or eighties.”
Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill
$3.50; buy now at powells.com
Everything about this memoir—which is about the annoyances of growing old and being able to do less than you have grown accustomed—is funnier than you might expect from the subject. Yes, it’s about getting sick and losing control and requiring the care of others. But it approaches this inevitable part of life with tremendous humor. “I have always wanted a pug and now I can’t have one,” Athill complains, “because buying a puppy when you are too old to take it for walks is unfair.”
The Madwoman in the Volvo by Sandra Tsing Loh
$9.98; buy now at powells.com
Probably the funniest book ever written about menopause, or what what author Loh calls the “triple-M generation:” the menopausal, middle-aged mother. And for more amazing reads, stock up on the 40 Books Every Woman Over 40 Should Have on Her Bookshelf.
The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger
$5.97; buy now at barnesandnoble.com
Originally published in 1952, this tale of disaffected youth is as relatable today as it was over over sixty years ago. “The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause,” explains Mr. Antolini, Holden’s favorite teacher. “While the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.” Small wonder this is one of the 40 Books Every Man Over 40 Should Have on His Bookshelf.
Emily, Alone by Stewart O’Nan
$14.45; buy now at barnesandnoble.com
This book—the 12th in a series—about a widowed 70-year-old woman stuck in her Pittsburgh house, “her life no longer an urgent or necessary business.” Equal parts funny and sad, it’s a novel that rings so true about the struggle to put your life back together after losing a loved one.
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
$11.04; buy now at barnesandnoble.com
This tale of four Chinese immigrant mothers and their daughters is wonderfully universal, summing up so perfectly the struggle of aging parents to remain relevant in the lives of their children. “A girl is like a young tree,” Tan writes. “You must stand tall and listen to your mother standing next to you. That is the only way to grow strong and straight. But if you bend to listen to other people, you will grow crooked and weak. You will fall to the ground with the first strong wind. And then you will be like a weed, growing wild in any direction, running along the ground until someone pulls you out and throws you away.”
I’ve Still Got It…I Just Can’t Remember Where I Put It by Jenna McCarthy
$10.43; buy now at amazon.com
The comedian and former Playboy model writes beautifully about growing old with a spouse, and the comfort and security that comes with that. “You’ve got someone who will come right out and tell you if you have broccoli in your teeth,” she says. “Somebody who will lie to you and tell you that you don’t need a face-lift and that he can see the triceps muscles you’ve been working diligently to unearth, somebody who’s seen you naked on numerous occasions without laughing or cringing or running screaming into the next room.”
The Red Hat Club by Haywood Smith
$11.32; buy now at amazon.com
Five women who’ve been best friends since high school continue to meet every month (even 30 years later), wearing the red hats and purple outfits of the Atlanta chapter of Ladies Who Lunch. The women support each other through difficult marriages—there are affairs and lackluster love lives and even abusive husbands—and prove that some friendships just get stronger with age.
I See You Made an Effort by Annabelle Gurwitch
$16.69; buy now at amazon.com
If David Sedaris was a woman approaching her 50th birthday, and he wasn’t all that happy about it, this book is what he would have written.
Twenty Years After by Alexandre Dumas
$16.95; buy now at amazon.com
Ever wondered what happened to the Three Musketeers when they reached middle age? This 1845 sequel, written by the original author, attempts to answer that timeless question: What happens when you stop being a hero and start needing to find a seat, because, oy, your back is so sore, and your feet—ah, don’t even get me started.
The Long Life by Helen Small
$31.89; buy now at amazon.com
From Plato to Shakespeare’s King Lear, Small examines our cultural ideas of what it means to have a good (and long) life. She takes a fascinating look at Saul Bellow, who said that growing old “is not a progress story, or a quest, or a story of improvement, but a careering plummet through time towards death.”
Unexpected Lessons in Love by Bernardine Bishop
$14.60; buy now at blackwells.co
Is it possible to keep a sex life alive, even in your 60s as a cancer survivor living with a colostomy? It’s a novel that gives hope, and humor, to those who think age and sickness might have made them irrelevant.
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
$12; buy now at target.com
“We always think there’s enough time to do things with other people. Time to say things to them. And then something happens and then we stand there holding on to words like ‘if’.’” This story of the aging curmudgeon next door is rife with these kind of observations, which will have you looking at the cranky old men in your neighborhood with a more sympathetic eye.
Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen
$11.01; buy now at target.com
These fascinating essays cover the highs and lows of one woman’s life from late middle age to early old age. “I’ve finally recognized my body for what it is,” she writes. “A personality-delivery system, designed expressly to carry my character from place to place,
The Little Old Lady Who Broke All The Rules by Catherina Ingelman-Sunderberg
$10.87; buy now at target.com
A 79-year-old woman decides she’s tired of the quiet life of retirement. So she starts robbing banks. Seriously. It’s all part of a plan to fund new adventures of her circle of elderly friends, who call themselves the League of Pensioners.
How It All Began by Penelope Lively
$10.49; buy now at powells.com
“Old age is an insult,” the 70-year-old woman recovering from a broken hip tells her reader. “Old age is a slap in the face. It sabotages a fine mind.” And that’s just the beginning of the truth-bombs in this infinitely-relatable novel.
Rabbit at Rest by John Updike
$6.95; buy now at powells.com
This book is a Pulitzer Prize winner and the fourth and final novel in a series about the life of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, who critics have called “America’s cloudy barometer.” Retired and living in Florida, Rabbit struggles with heart disease and making peace with life’s many disappointments. “Life is a hill that gets steeper the more you climb,” Irving writes.
Old Records Never Die by Eric Spitznagel
$8.98; buy now at powells.com
This memoir by a Best Life contributor takes a hilarious look at how we try to slow down the aging process by clinging to the past. Spitznagel, realizing that he’s now middle aged, decides to track down all the vinyl albums of his youth; not just copies, but the exact records, with the scratches and skips he remembers, and the LP sleeves covered in his familiar handwriting.
Tenth of December by George Saunders
$8.95; buy now at powells.com
This collection of short stories, by one of the best writers alive, are full of anxious characters grappling with the emotional weight of growing older. As Saunders writes, “Dad had once said, Trust your mind, Rob. If it smells [bad] but has writing across it that says Happy Birthday and a candle stuck down in it, what is it?”
Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens
$3.99; buy now at amazon.com
So many astute observations about aging in Dickens’ seventh novel, especially involving the character Solomon Gills, the elderly owner of a nautical instruments shop. “I am an old-fashioned man in an old-fashioned shop,” he says, “in a street that is not the same as I remember it. I have fallen behind the time, and am too old to catch it again.”
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
$10.20; buy now at amazon.com
A 37-year-old businessman hears the Beatles song “Norwegian Wood” and is transported back to his college days, in 1960s Tokyo, when life seemed so much simpler and full of purpose. “Memory is a funny thing,” Murakami writes. “When I was in the scene, I hardly paid it any mind. I never stopped to think of it as something that would make a lasting impression, certainly never imagined that eighteen years later I would recall it in such detail.”
Keep Moving: and Other Tips and Truths About Aging by Dick Van Dyke
$2.62; buy now at amazon.com
The TV and movie icon writes about how he’s lived to 90 and still has the energy and enthusiasm of a 20-year-old. “All that nipping and tucking doesn’t make you look younger—only stranger,” he writes. “My advice? Let the outside sag and wrinkle; change what’s on the inside.”
Coming into Eighty: Poems by May Sarton
$2; buy now at amazon.com
The acclaimed poet and novelist celebrated her 80th year of life with this collection, in which she explains, “I am a foreigner in the land of old age and have tried to learn its language.”
Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson
$15.95; buy now at amazon.com
First published in 1978, this award-winning novel follows a 70-year-old woman who returns to her small town home, after a lifetime of trying to escape, and discovers that the past isn’t exactly as she remembers it.
You’re Only Old Once!: A Book for Obsolete Children by Dr. Seuss
$14.89; buy now at amazon.com
Just as Dr. Seuss introduced us to the wonders of imagination in our childhoods, he gives us a hilarious warning about what to expect in old age, when we’re dragged from doctor to doctor for medical tests that seem never ending. What in the world is a Spleen Readjustment and Muffler Repair? It may seem like a joke, but the closer you get to your senior years, the less fantastical and fictional it all seems. And for some help on facing your next birthday(s), Steal Pierce Brosnan’s Secret Trick for Aging Gracefully.
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