Recommendations of the Best Books on Aging

Five Books is a website that provides lists of the best books on all kinds of subjects. Recently it published two different lists of the best books on aging.

In The best books on Ageing neuroscientist and science writer Kathleen Taylor presents “the latest science on ageing and the literary works that can give us a clearer picture of what it’s all about.”

Taylor recommends these books:

  1. Gilead: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson
  2. The Warden by Anthony Trollope
  3. How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter by Sherwin Nuland
  4. How to Grow Old: Ancient Wisdom for the Second Half of Life by Marcus Tullius Cicero
  5. King Lear by William Shakespeare

Taylor’s list surprised me because I expected that a neuroscientist’s choices would be scientific books about the latest developments in understanding Alzheimer’s disease and other organic effects of aging. Here’s what Taylor has to say about her choices:

A lot of the problems that we have with old age when we’re younger are a failure to empathise with older people and to really understand what it feels like to be old—as opposed to what it looks like intellectually. So I’m keen to bring both perspectives in.

I’m not saying that I don’t think the scientific perspective is important, it really is, but I think if you blend that with a more understanding or internal perspective, it can help you understand the person. You can’t really know what it’s like to be old until you’re old but literature can get you a bit closer than, for example, the study of biochemical proteins and what they do in the brain.

I’m so glad to find a scientist who recognizes that some of our most important insights into the human experience come from fiction.

In another article, also titled The best books on Ageing, author Margaret Drabble recommends these five books:

  1. Late Call by Angus Wilson
  2. The Coming of Age by Simone de Beauvoir
  3. Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time by Penelope Lively
  4. The Long Life by Helen Small
  5. Unexpected Lessons in Love by Bernardine Bishop

The works by Simone de Beauvoir, Penelope Lively, and Helen Small present social and cultural overviews of aging. Although these books offer insight into the experience of aging, I was most interested in Drabble’s comments on the novels Late Call and Unexpected Lessons in Love as well as her own most recent novel, The Dark Flood Rises, all of which focus on characters experiencing advancing age.

And I particularly like Drabble’s answer the the question of advice on how to age well:

I think learning a new language is good. It’s slightly better for the brain than crossword puzzles, but it also teaches you a new world. I’m learning German poetry with a PhD student. We don’t do language—I don’t want to go shopping in Germany—but we read poems together, and that has given me great joy. It’s like entering into a new world that I knew was there but had never had the time or inclination to enter.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

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