A Portrait of the Retiring Reader

At El Camino College in the late 1960s I met an old man and an old woman in a literature class. I fell into talking with them outside class one day, waiting for the professor to arrive. The old man said he was recently retired from a life of work that had permitted him little time to read. They asked me what the young people were reading – outside of the class-assigned reading. They were looking for recommendations. I described the Beats, Ginsberg and Kerouac, and William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, my interests at the time. The old man said he didn’t want to read something that might leave a bad taste in his mouth. Our literature class came to an end and I never saw the two old students again. 

I’ve now spent a life working and reading but still have a newborn’s appetite, but at the bookstore last week I picked up a used copy of Naked Lunch and quickly put it back down. I’m still the same reader I was as a young man at El Camino, but now, like the old man in my literature class, I don’t want to read something that’s going to give me heartburn. 

The many articles on retirement I’ve recently noticed are of course due to the coming of age of the Baby Boomers. If you were born after WWII but before Vietnam, welcome to the fold. Most of the retirement articles, usefully, focus on money: how much will you need, how long can you wait, what else can you do. But the question that interests me the most is how will you spend your time: Winnebago Weeks on Route 66; Lunch on the Beach at Laguna; Golf at Bandon Dunes; Flying Lessons Over the Mojave…Yes, yes, but after this, what then? 

For many of us, retirement will seem like popping out of the water after a long, slow commute to the top of a busy, crowded sea. After 30 years of working 9 to 5, we’ll find ourselves floating on the surface, surrounded by acres of open water under a baby-blue sky. What will we do with all this space and time? 

One activity for which some of us may be out of shape is reading…Yes, yes, but read what? I think of the old man and old woman in my El Camino literature class. I too now prefer books that will not leave a bad taste in the mouth. But what does that mean? We want to read books that will uplift, inspire, and encourage the imagination, books written with mystery, style, and deference, books that will float us on the open sea of retirement. Nothing sappy, mind you, nor condescending – we are, after all, adults. Here are a few books personally annotated – an eclectic selection of suggestions for beginning retirees, dedicated to the old man and old woman I met back at El Camino: 

Walden (1854), by Henry David Thoreau. Reading is economical. If Huck Finn is the beginning of American literature, Walden should have been the beginning of American economy. Here you will learn to live deliberately, and, if necessary, alone, but not quite alone, for you will have the woods and the pond and neighbors. 

My Garden (Book) (1999), by Jamaica Kincaid. This backyard Walden helped inspire my own backyard Salsa Garden, where we plant everything we need to make our summer salsa. 

Silence (1961), by John Cage. Cage’s writing is less annoying than his music, until you completely let go and find yourself laughing and enjoying the indeterminacies and exactitudes. 

Siddhartha (1922), by Herman Hesse. If you missed the serene trip in the sixties, you can read it in your 60’s. 

Memoirs (1974), by Pablo Neruda. The beloved Chilean poet’s memory is full of stories about life and a love for life. Neruda’s great strength was his patience and will to explore that love in a way that others might feel and see and taste and touch and hear. 

The City and the Mountains (1901), by Eca de Queiros. In 2008, New Directions published a new edition, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa. The story is an exercise in compare and contrast between city and rural living. The many delightful but absurd technological inventions the city-dwellers value foreshadow our own time. 

The Square (1955); Moderato Cantabile (1958); 10:30 on a Summer Night (1960); The Afternoon of Mr. Andesmas (1962) by Marguerite Duras. Mysterious, short novels, though not exactly mysteries, with fine dialog, setting, and characterization. 

My Antonia (1918), by Willa Cather. The look of recognition in another that lasts a lifetime of separation. A truly beautiful book. 

The Night the Bear Ate Goombaw (1989), by Patrick McManus. I first heard McManus as bedtime stories my wife read aloud to our son, the day ending for all of us in laughter. Now, I think there are few images as beautiful as an older person laughing, which is what you’ll be doing when you read this book. 

Rose, Where did you get that red? Teaching Great Poetry to Children (1973), by Kenneth Koch. From Koch’s experience teaching great poetry to children in New York City, examples of great poems with the children’s poems following, one illuminating the other. We can understand a great poem, get the ideas behind great poems, volunteer to teach poetry in our local grade school, and have some fun with great and small, old and young. 

A good reader is someone who can recommend a book to a friend and get it right. I might not have been such a good reader back at El Camino, and I’m still working on becoming a better reader. We read to remain in the world, and to enjoy our stay. We may have retired from a job, an occupation, a role – we hope never to retire from the pleasurable occupation of reading.