Reading in the Second Half of Life

I started reading Anna Karenina this week.  I’ve never read Tolstoy before, I guess I wasn’t old enough.  Last year my favorite novels were The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope and Middlemarch by George Elliot.  Those stories are a far cry from the science fiction I grew up reading.  My story tastes have changed as I’ve gotten older.  I still read science fiction, I just finished Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds, but characters seldom seem real in science fiction, not like those in the classic and literary novels.  The same is true of movies and television, where I once thought The Matrix brilliant, now I find the sublime in Downton Abbey.


At sixty I can look back and see my reading life changed around fifty.  Starting at twelve until my college years my reading life had been shaped by the science fiction of Robert A. Heinlein, but even before that, I can remember hazy days of grade school, and the earliest novels I remember reading on my own were the Oz books by L. Frank Baum and the Danny Dunn and Tom Swift, Jr. series.  My early life of reading was inspired by escapism, fantasy and science fiction.  But then, isn’t the youthful literary work of humankind about myths, fantastic creatures, gods, epic voyages,  magic and faraway places?

Don’t we all come down to Earth when we get old?  More and more I prefer nonfiction and history to fiction, but when I read fiction I crave literary works whose authors were careful observers of the realistic details of living.

Getting old for me means paying more attention to the real world and less to the fantasy worlds.  All fiction is fantasy, but I grew up reading fiction inspired by fantasy worlds, and now that I’m getting old I prefer books inspired by this world.  I wonder if this trend continues as I age, will I give up fiction altogether and just read the here and now?

I’ve often compared my reading habit to a drug addiction, and my belief in science fiction to religion, but then Marx said religion is the opiate of the people, so the two overlap.  When we are young we want reality to be more fantastic than it is.  We want to fly.  We want super powers.  We want to be protected by powerful beings.  Comic book super-heroes are no different from the gods of mythology.

As the years pile up the fantastic fails us like our fleshy passions.  As our bodies decay, we are forced to face reality.

Why after fifty, is James Joyce’s Ulysses so much more an adventure than Homer’s?

Konstantin Levin becomes more fascinating than Valentine Michael Smith.

When I was young I wanted to be John Carter, now I rather be John Bates, the valet in Downton Abbey.

Who knew Earth would become more far out than Mars.

JWH – 3/27/12

9 thoughts on “Reading in the Second Half of Life”

  1. Bah! You are letting Time win. I for one am going to dream the big dreams till the day I die permanently. Frankly, humans on the whole make me want to escape them, their lack of imagination, their petty squabbles and general idiocy.

    Plus there is far too much universe to see for me to wish to stay trapped on this little ball of dirt and water. I still yearn for the stars.

    You can have this world, oh meek.

      1. In about two weeks I will be four hopefully good years left in me till I start telling people that “No! I am not fifty years old. I am one half century old and you respect that.”.

        But for now, i am merely in my soon to be late forties.

        1. My change didn’t happen right at 50. At 50 I went to Clarion West Writer’s Workshop. Sometime in my 50s I became more realistic about the final frontier.

          Late forties isn’t bad. Late forties you can still feel you could get lucky with young women if you fantasize really hard, but once you get into your fifties it’s almost impossible to even fantasize those fantasies because they are so hard to believe.

          Aging does a trip on you. I thought getting old would only mean going bald and getting wrinkled – no biggies. Aging plays with your head, and then you start having your body fall apart, and you realize life doesn’t last forever.

          These are spoilers to your story, are they?

  2. Heh, heh. I’m just the opposite, Jim. I tended to read the classics when I was a kid, mostly because that was what was available, I suppose. I don’t know about Tolstoy – it’s been a long time – but I certainly loved Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, and Ernest Hemingway, among others.

    As I got a bit older, I read Aldous Huxley and Herman Hesse, E. M. Forster and Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoevsky and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

    But when I grew up, I discovered science fiction and fantasy (and, to a much lesser extent, mysteries). Even then, I tended to read more serious fiction when I was younger, and increasingly light-weight adventure stories as I’ve gotten older.

    Now that I’m your age, I have no patience for serious fiction. When I read at all, it’s very light-weight stuff. Funny, huh?

    1. But you blogging interests and writing are extremely down to Earth. And you spend a lot of time working with growing things So Bill, maybe it’s natural to want light reading that’s escapist.


  3. At first it will seem like a cop out, but the answer to whether or not my reading tastes have changed since I’ve gotten older is truly “yes, and no”.

    My childhood was filled with Peanuts, what I would largely classify as “space opera” science fiction, some fantasy and, when I hit puberty, a lot of “teen” fiction. Boy meets girl, boy gets girl, kind of stuff.

    What hasn’t changed is that I still love to read Peanuts, I enjoy re-reading the space opera of my youth and discovering classic and contemporary science fiction. I enjoy a wide variety of subgenres of “fantasy”. I still read YA fiction but I don’t really read any “Teen” fiction.

    I read more nonfiction than I did as a kid. But as an early adolescent I was exposed to Shakespeare and to various classics (short story, poetry, and long form novels) and I took to it like a duck to water. Loved it. Probably read more of it as a teen/early 20’s than I read now, but I still enjoy it and make some effort to at least keep it in my radar.

    A big change over the last 3-4 years are personal essay collections. They are like a drug to me (the good ones anyway). I love reading essays about reading, about books, or about life in general and the author’s take on life. Favorites of the past few years have been Anne Fadiman, Nick Hornby, Sloane Crosley, C.W. Gusewelle, Chris Bojalian. I’m also a fan of books about people who chucked city life and decided to live out in the country and farm, or decided to move to another country. Those are a few of my more recent changes.

    And in some ways I’ve been more willing to branch out in my SF choices, but not too much wider than what my usual reading was.

    So I’ve grown in scope of what I like to read, but haven’t lost a great deal of fondness for what I liked in my younger years.

    1. I’d like to think we all are open to new reading experiences, as well as understanding that any genre, no matter how wonderful it is, shouldn’t be an exclusive lifetime of reading. Carl, I also like books about people moving back to nature, or to another country. Recently I received a book by a friend of mine called Aegean Dream, about he and his wife moving to a Greek Island. That was a real adventure.

      And I still love many of the books I discovered in adolescent, just not most of them.

      I’ve been meaning to read Peanuts since you reviewed those collections.

      Our lives go through so many changes, so why shouldn’t our reading?

      1. Your last sentence is so true. And I think, while we move forward in our own timeline, our lives aren’t necessarily about constant upward movement. I believe it ebbs and flows, and with that comes not only new things that we want to experience but also things we either experience again or at least experience similarly.

        Aegean Dream sounds perfect. Adding it to the list.

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