Aging and the Stories We Tell

What better way to begin another year than to read books about getting older?

"We need to keep searching for stories of aging in order to expand our grasp," Martha Nussbaum writes in Aging Thoughtfully: Conversations about Retirement, Romance, Wrinkles and Regret (Oxford Univ. Press, $24.95). Nussbaum and Saul Levmore exchange provocative essays-as-discussion in a book that is "about living thoughtfully, and certainly not about dying, gracefully or otherwise."

In Rick Gekoski's amazing novel Darke (Canongate, $25), Dr. James Darke chronicles ("This journal? A coming-of-old-age book, dispirited, hopelessly knowing.") his self-imposed exile ("I am become a thing of darkness."). The tale is appropriately dark, but also smart, witty ("Mr. Eliot includes himself among the damned. I like that in a poet."), poignant and unexpectedly tender.

"Apart from a few setbacks, I have been lucky all my life," writes Diana Athill in Alive, Alive Oh!: And Other Things That Matter (Norton paperback, $14.95), a slender, wonder-filled memoir published when she was a mere 96 years old. Last month, just before her 100th birthday, she observed in a live Guardian webchat: "I feel very much like I always did. I'm more confident now. That's one of the great advantages of getting older--one does grow out of minding what other people think of you, which is great."

With today's release of Ali Smith's Winter, I'll put in a plug for Autumn, the first novel in her planned quartet. The intricate relationship between Elisabeth, a young woman, and Daniel, an old man, is mind-altering. "Time travel is real, Daniel said. We do it all the time. Moment to moment, minute to minute."

During my 20s, I discovered May Sarton's Journal of a Solitude (Norton, paperback, $15.95), written when she was about 60. All of her journals (At Eighty-Two appeared shortly after her 1995 death) are rare gems. When I was young, I felt she was speaking directly to me. Now, so many years later, she still does, if in a different tone. As reader and writer, we are finally contemporaries: "At any age we grow by the enlarging of consciousness." --Robert Gray, contributing editor

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