On Old Age

Michael Kinsley’s Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide is the latest addition to the increasing number of books on old age. In reading it, I was expecting a serious discussion of the experience of growing old. But Kinsley’s treatment was nothing like that.

Instead, it was a hodgepodge of previously written essays and articles he has written that were not well integrated. Further, it was far too jokey for my taste. There’s nothing funny about growing old, at least my experience of growing old and I suspect that is generally the case.

At the age of 43 Kinsley learned he had Parkinson’s disease. He tried to keep his illness secret until it became obvious whereupon he made it known. He also underwent deep brain stimulation that appears to have slowed the progress of his symptoms. In fact, it is clear that 23 years after his disease was diagnosed, he hasn’t lost his “marbles,” as he frequently reminds the reader.

At the outset Kinsley says his book is supposed to be “about the baby boom generation—those born between 1946 and 1964—as they enter life’s last chapter.” But in spite of its title, the book has very little to say about old age, other than the Parkinson’s Disease. And even then, we learn very little about his particular symptoms and problems in coping with it.

The book also ends with a message to the baby boomers. He argues that the enormous personal and national debt his generation leaves behind has to be redeemed, in the same way the “Greatest Generation” did during World War II.

“What we can do is…pass on to the next generation an American that’s free from debt. Instead of ignoring it, or arguing endlessly about whose fault it is and who should pay for it, boomers as a group should just reach out and grab the check.”

I thought what a strange way to end a book on old age. But then I realized Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide wasn’t really about old age at all. Rather it was about how clever Michael Kinsley is in his early 60s.

I don’t usually comment on a book I don’t like. But in my reading Kinsley’s book seems both pretentious and misleading, both features missing from Donald Hall’s Essays After Eighty.

The fourteen essays in former US Poet Laureate Hall’s book are largely about the infirmities and limitations of growing old. Hall is now 86, no longer drives, has difficulty standing, getting up, and remaining balanced.

Yet he is alert and tries to read and write, but not with the same facility he once had. He remains oddly cheerful, in spite of being largely disabled and alone. He gets around in a wheelchair and with little appetite eats frozen dinners, is clumsy and slow with buttons, etc.

The book is more of an old-age lament, rather than a group of essays on the art of poetry, as I was expecting given his life as a much-praised and award-winning poet. Instead, Hall writes about how the mail is delivered, his wives, their travels, his cancers and the one that killed his beloved wife and fellow poet, Jane Kenyon.

He recounts how each day is much the same now as any other. He no longer travels and friends rarely visit. Most are long gone. So he reminisces about almost-forgotten times He’s also periodically visited by a bookkeeper, trainer, housekeeper and companion, all women in their 50s.

He comments, “When I lament and darken over my diminishments, I accomplish nothing. It’s better to sit at the window all day, pleased to watch birds, barns, and flowers.”

Still he says that, while old age is a “ceremony of losses,” it is still preferable to dying at forty-seven or fifty-two. He’s fortunate to feel that way. I’m not so sure.


Linda said...

I almost bought this book. I watched an interview of Michael Kinsley - can't remember the program or the interviewer, but I remember the interviewer remarking on the "glowing review" by NYT book reviewer Phillip Lopate - http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/24/books/review/michael-kinsley-old-age-a-beginners-guide.html.

So I read Lopate's review. It was favorable for the most part, except for the strange part about the baby boomers' obligation to pay off the national debt. But I've learned the hard way to read between the lines of a "glowing" review. Lopate comments multiple times that Kinsley "makes fun," "he mocks," "he addresses the reader with rhythmic little pokes, prods." Lopate concludes with noting that the book is "packaged as a nifty impulse purchase." That was enough for me - damned with faint praise.

Like you, I'm interested in serious reflection on the subject. Humor is fine - we all laugh at times at what the ageing process is doing to us, but the underlying subject is not a laughing matter to me. I prefer the lamentation of a Donald Hall, expressed with beauty and honesty.

It is an interesting puzzle sometimes trying to read a book review. I suppose it depends on the reader's perspective and bias as to what constitutes "glowing" or "favorable" or maybe what might just be a friend's attempt to do a favor for his author friend/colleague. And I sympathize with Kinsley - if his book cheers a reader, that is fine - and if he needs money, I hope his book sells well. But from Lopate's "glowing" review, I sensed it would not work for me.

Thank you for confirming what I suspected. I have not written about books that disappoint me - thinking that writing time should not be added to the reading time already wasted - but I may break that rule in the future.

Richard Katzev said...

Thank you, Linda. I read the Lopate review and one other in the Times. Neither suggested caution about buying the book. Nevertheless, I will read most anything about growing old. Kinsley's was disappointing in so many ways. He didn't cheer me up about aging. And he seems to have accepted old age quite gracefully, at least on the page. However, he is only 60, which is not yet terribly old these days. I am actually working on my own book about old age. Maybe something will come of it. Richard

Linda said...

Richard, I look forward to your book on old age! And I don't need a review to tell me that it will speak to me.

Richard Katzev said...

Linda: I better get going then. Soon I will take a summer break from blogging so I can concentrate on the book. If I ever get anywhere on it, I'll send it to you. Richard

Stefanie said...

I have a little while before old age but my parents and in-laws are there or almost there and thankfully all are doing well, still healthy and quite active. Both families seem to have longevity in their genes with grandparents and aunts and uncles making it well into their 90s. My grandpa's sister made it to 102! I know I can't plan for all events but I am doing my best now to lay the foundation for a long, healthy and active old age.

Richard Katzev said...

Lucky you, Stefanie. Not only are your parents (and in-laws ) living a long life, but apparently they are both healthy and active. And I know you are trying to do the same. Staying active is my way of "laying the foundation," as well as the so called Mediterranean diet. Yet, both were never intended so I could live a long life. Rather, they simply made me feel better. Paradoxically, they may enable me to live a long life, even when I have no desire to do so. Richard