Fragmented thoughts of a fragmented mind

19 Dec 2018

growing old with books

When I was a teenager I often discussed with my friends the age I would like to live until (sigh, teenagers). That age was 30. I felt like 30 years of miserable living was all that I could stomach.

Today I was reading Krista Tippet’s book, and one of her interviewees was remarking how great it was to live till his 80s, insinuating that it enabled him to witness the changes that had occurred in his lifetime. Imagine being born in the 1930s living through a world war, witnessing the civil rights movement and all the momentous events since. There was suffering as well as progress of course, but that is the whole point: life was not, and never will be, a single dimensional experience.

Reading that made me suddenly conscious of a new curiosity that had probably emerged slowly in the last few months: what would it be like for me to live till my 80s? In the past my instinctual reaction to imagining a long life would only be dread and despair, now I feel curious.

I am not at all romantic about living a long life, and it is not something I actively desire, and I definitely support compassionate euthanasia if quality of life deteriorates in old age. But in context of my chronic suicidal tendencies I think it is interesting that I am feeling neutral and curious about it.

In the last 7 years or so, life suddenly expanded for me. I attribute a lot of this expansion to the sudden increase in the number of books I have been reading. I think I entered a dead zone in my 20s, probably reading way less than 50 books in that decade. I started recording my reading in 2011 on Goodreads: I started with 3 books in that year. Then in 2012 it was 38, and every year since I have read more than 50 books per year. It was a deliberate commitment, because if I didn’t gamify myself, I know I would forget to read. It isn’t the quantity of course, but I think if there is a commitment to a certain quantity, there is bound to be some quality somewhere.

Books have given me courage and perspective. They made me question and redefine my lived experiences. There were life-changing decisions I made because someone in history left an indelible mark on me with their writing. They expanded the way I see the world, made me aware of possibilities I would never have encountered if not for them. There is a whole other essay on books contained here, but today I want to write about growing old instead.

So what have books got to with me growing old? I think of all the internal change that has occurred and is still occurring in me is due to the books I have read, and I start to wonder about all the books I have yet to read, that I will be reading, and how they will change me. This year I read more than previous years intentionally (I have just finished book 76), because I felt like I needed more to cope with all the change I have been experiencing. The more I read, the more I want to read.

I feel like whatever I have read is just such a tiny slice of the human knowledge available and yet they are already so expansive, I cannot imagine what is it like to go further and deeper. Which are the oncoming books that will shape my life dramatically? What about the books that are yet to be written, what would it be like as a cranky 70 year old reading something written by a fiery 25 year old?

I know there will be hard times ahead. I think my generation has experienced an extended period of peace and will not be prepared to face what is to come. But in some strange way I hope to be capable of witnessing this unfolding of history, to see the choices we will make, the ways we try to cope, the resilience that we will demonstrate, the people we will become, the youth that will inspire. I want to know if we would learn, improve, remedy. 80 years of life: it would be enough to see a few sweeping changes of history, maybe it wouldn’t be pleasant, but it would be something to be a witness to it.

The world is what we make out of it, what would we choose? What would I choose? What are the books I would pick? Would I write some? Who would I become in another twenty, thirty years?

Five years of intensive reading and I have changed beyond my own recognition. What would be the compound effect of more of those years?

I hope I’ll never lose my love for reading. I could argue it made me less dreadful of living a long life and maybe the crux is this: a world that has books, that has people who want to write books and people who want to read them, is a world capable of beauty and deserves our stewardship.

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