Marina Benjamin has come up with a top-ten list of books about middle age. Her selection is, of course, personal; there’s no consensus of which I am aware of what the top ten books on middle age might be, in contrast to a genre like romance or mystery or science fiction, where one might be able to give it a real shot.
She comes up with some gems, though: In Our Prime sounds like a fascinating bit of social history, as does Brown Sisters. I would never have thought of Alexandre Dumas for the list, and I am delighted at the prospect of laughing and cringing my way through Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.
To Benjamin’s list we might add Roger Rosenblatt’s Thomas Murphy, although the hero in that one is a bit older than someone in the middle of life. Richard Ford has dealt with middle age in both Nobody’s Fool and The Sportswriter. Non-fictionally, it would be unwise to forget the book that got us all thinking about middle age years ago, Gail Sheehy’s Passages–a book still worth reading today.
I might also mention, by the by, that one of the aspects of the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan which keeps it deep in my memory is its superb evocation of middle age in the life of Captain Kirk. He’s prickly and vulnerable and unspeakably brave all at once in that story, and I regard it as a wonderful show.
Marvin Zindler, the late consumer affairs reporter for Channel 13 here in Houston, one of the catalysts for the stage play The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and a man who knew my father when both were younger and working for the State, used to remind his audience that “old age is not for the faint of heart.” That is true, in ways that neither Zindler, who died of pancreatic cancer in his eighties, nor I can even begin to count.
It is also true that middle age is not for the timid. It is in that great expanse of years from 40 to 70 when we begin our journey across the vast Sahara that stretches before us. We think, as we begin, that we have enough youth and strength to make the journey easily. We’re smart enough to take a good number of supplies with us, and a companion has joined us for the trip. But step by step, the journey is longer and more difficult than we thought. The heat saps our strength, and we never imagined the nights would be so cold. We marked a good path when we set out, but the wind springs up constantly and we simply can’t see in the distance anymore the markers we thought were there. After a while, our feet begin to ache. The walking shoes that used to be so comfortable now crush our toes, and the weight of our backpacks, once a delight to bear in the adventure of it all, simply has to be lightened, so we discard things that are still valuable to us in the sand, and we curse ourselves for having to do so. The anger surprises us. Our water supply is still adequate, although we seem to need more of it as we go along, and God, we’re dying for a real drink. Our companion is helpful, but she, too, is feeling the stress, and she’s beginning to doubt if we’ve chosen the right path across the desert floor. She’s afraid because it’s dawned on her, as it has on me that, whatever may be ahead, there’s no turning back. Wouldn’t it have been easier to go that way than this? she asks. But no, the oasis is just beyond that next rise. I’m certain of it. I saw it on the map, and I’ve got the map memorized. Trust me, I say to her. All. . . all right, she says, and we begin again, shouldering our packs, to make a final push toward that small patch of green, the lovely shade, that we know is just over the dune that we can barely make out as our eyes squint into the shimmering distance.