In Praise of Old Men

I just recently turned 66, reminded by Social Security that I had reached full retirement age. But this post is not about me. Rather it is about three men who are still publishing in their nineties, making me look and feel young again. The three – Roger Angell, Bernard Bailyn, and Herman Wouk – each have been publishing for more than six decades.

Angell, an editor and long-time contributor to The New Yorker who is best known for his books on baseball, has pulled tog his ether a wide-ranging collection of essays in This Old Man: All in Pieces (New York: Doubleday, 2015). Angell waxes eloquently about sports, growing up, his family, writing and editing, writers, his family, and, of course, aging. All of his essays are lyrical reflections of life in our country and what makes life worth living. His personal knowledge of the events and personalities he writes about deepens our sense of them, all while entertaining us.

If Angell is the king of the short, pithy essay, Bailyn is the master of the historical narrative, as exemplified in his collection, Sometimes An Art: Nine Essays on History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015). These essays, originally published between 1954 and 2007 and updated for this new book, remain current, fresh, and provocative as when originally published. They wander over various approaches to history and essential topics critical to understanding the past. Some of the comments are fresh and relevant. “The greatest challenge that will face historians in the years ahead, it seems to me, is not how to deepen and further sophisticate their technical probes of life in the past, . . . but how to put the story together again, now with a complexity and an analytical dimension not envisioned before, how to draw together the information available (quantitative and qualitative, statistical and literary, visual and oral) into readable accounts of major developments.” He continues: “No effective historian of the future can be innocent of statistics, and indeed he or she should probably be a literate amateur economist, psychologist, anthropologist, sociologist, and geographer. In the end, however, historians must be not analysts of isolated technical problems abstracted from the past but narratives of worlds in motion – worlds as complex, unpredictable, and transient as our own (pp. 78-79).

Then there is the memoir of Herman Wouk, Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year Old Author (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016). Wow, a century and still scribbling. Wouk, the well-known novelist of classics such as The Caine Mutiny and The Winds of War, provides a brief, engaging portrait of being a writer. In it, he describes his successes and failures and how he researched a number of his books, offering advice to both reader and writer. Some of this is particularly interesting to me, an archivist. At one point he mentions destroying all the files of one ill-fated project, in order to leave no trace of it. Other portions interest me, the bibliophile, as he considers the changing nature of the publishing industry. Near the end he mentions that he has been keeping a diary, now totaling a hundred volumes, containing the “whole Herman Wouk story” (p. 134). One only hopes they keep on writing, along with Roger and Bernard.

I like these old guys. They inspire me. They make me feel young, and hopeful.

 

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