September 4, 2010

"The older I get, the fewer books I finish, and the more I read highly selectively — fast forward set on high."

Writes Kenneth Anderson:
This is either the getting of wisdom — or the gradual shutting down of (what to call it?) one’s social and engagement functions as one gets closer to in-turnedness of dying, the inability of the aging to take in new stuff because we are too occupied trying to process the accumulation of the previous decades.
Do older people read differently? If so, why?

If older people are less likely to read straight through a whole book, it's probably because:
The closer you are to death, the less reason there is to add more content to your brain.
The more you've put into your brain over the years the harder it is to jam in new material.
You've already read the things that have most influenced you, so the new things are less valuable.
You're so experienced that you don't need all the background and explaining that pads out most books.
You have less time left to live and more wisdom about when you are wasting it. free polls


Anonymous said...

I am not going to waste my time on bad books. They get about a chapter to grab me. Otherwise, it's back to the library.

Unknown said...

Mine wasn't there:

My standards are higher now and I'm less willing to waste time on nonsense. How long I have has nothing to do with it.

bearing said...

You forgot to control for the possibility that it's not age, but the time you're living in. Maybe everybody reads more that way than they did ten or twenty years ago, because we all have less patience for narratives that unfold at someone else's pace now that we have the power to pick and choose so easily how to get the information we want.

Anonymous said...

I struggle between reading on Kindle or as a regular book. It is hard to know the page numbers on Kindle. Some books are on Kindle and some are not. So, my challenge is between two modalities.

Of course, the best reader today is the President. His choices are always right and correct. This is the reason he is the most intelligent among the Presidents. I fully expect him to be victorious in 2010 (for others in Congress) and for himself in 2012.

My other challenge has been that most GOP do not read a lot or just read politics and rumors stuff. May be if GOP read most intellectual materials, then they would have a shot in 2016 (but not before by any stretch of the imagination - not even Hollywood could come up with a positive scenario before that).

Chase said...

I blame the internets.

And the American Public School System.

And - of course - the New York Times.

And Rachel Maddow.

Joe said...

America's Politico PROES he's a rightwing post is incoherent, no one can be that foolish....mind you I didn't finish it, it was too long and didn't grab me immediately nor did it come with forty Face Book friends saying "like"...
what were we talking about, again?

ricpic said...

No patience with verbiage. That's what it boils down to. Saul Bellow in old age wrote, "Short views, for God's sake short views!"

Anonymous said...

I've only read technical and programming manuals for the past 15 years.

Before that I was an avid reader of novels and political texts.

Stopped being interested in analyzing what people do, and became interested in how to do things.

You don't really read manuals from beginning to end. You only read the parts you need to read, when you need to read them.

Also, I've become increasing suspicious of the assumptions of novels, movies... etc. Just because you can model the world in some sort of way in fiction, that doesn't prove your political theories.

Just to recall a really hilarious example.

Remember "Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood. Written in 1985, it argued that we were headed toward a Christian theocracy where women would be chattel.

Stupid beyond belief, right? Couldn't be more wrong. Oddly, Atwood's reputation hasn't suffered a bit for writing such a profoundly idiotic book.

She was wrong about everything. Feminism controls the courts and administrative offices. The diktats of feminism have been imposed on us by administrative fiat.

And the threat of a theocracy comes from Islam, not the west.

And, yet, it seemed to convincing to feminists and liberals at the time. It was total bullshit, ginned up so that white women could get more stuff.

HT said...

(Second time posting)

A good friend of the family, 91 y.o, says that Kindle is saving her, and she doesn't know what she'd do without it. Of course, she has family who can handle the downloading and billing, which more than the expense, would be too complicated for her to handle.

roesch-voltaire said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
roesch-voltaire said...

I think being aware of the limited time determines not only what I read, very little current fiction compared to my youthful reading habits, but also what I do with my time. I have lived long enough to discover within a few pages that the old ideas and myths are simply repackaged in slightly different ways and do not require more reading. Of late, I find new insights into science and technology provided by "Dazzle Gradually" for example or reviewing old philosophers like Voltaire in my Great Books reading club,more rewarding.

miller said...

I don't know that I'm reading less. I know that I am way more unable to read the crap foisted on me by the intellectual class. It's really not even remotely readable.

Amexpat said...

You forgot to control for the possibility that it's not age, but the time you're living in.

That's a factor for me.

Anonymous said...

How about:
"The older you get the easier it is to spot BS and the less time you have to waste on it."

Things you would've taken time to seriously consider a few decades ago, you now know doesn't work/can't work and you refuse to waste time with it.

bearing said...

Shouting Thomas, I never read "The Handmaid's Tale" as arguing that the U. S. was headed toward the theocracy it depicted. It's speculative fiction -- do you read every sci-fi or fantasy book on the shelf as an argument that "this is where we're headed?"

I always read it as a story that enabled me to understand a little better the horror of living under a regime like the Taliban, with the American setting making it easier to empathize.

rhhardin said...

The early detection of various classes of bullshit and paid-by-the-word fill improves with age.

howzerdo said...

I didn't vote because there was no choice close to what I think may be one reason. Our eyes gradually get worse as we age. I've had to wear reading glasses for the past few years, and it is a hassle that cuts own on my enjoyment of reading, an activity that I love. Cateracts, macular degeneration, glaucoma, etc. would only make it worse.

DADvocate said...

I find I read less now because I am more interested in doing things. Having been born the same year as Ann, I am definitely getting older. :-)

Anonymous said...

For beach reading this year, I embarked on the first thriller I've read in years. It wasn't bad and held my interest up to the point where someone started using a "silenced revolver".

Whereupon I kicked myself for having read as far as I had. It'll be awhile before I pick up another.

GMay said...

I put down War and Peace last year after plowing through it up to about halfway while thoroughly enjoying it. Real life intruded and I haven't picked it back up, even though I've read many books since.

It seems to happen every time real life interferes with my reading. This is an improvement over my former habit of being inside up to 5 books at once I developed about 10 years ago, but it still irritates me.

Overall I notice my reading declining the last 10 years too. I blame the internet.

rcocean said...

I agree with some others here, the older you get the less tolerant you are of BS. You detect it quicker and are less interested in it. Further, I've arrived at certain political, social, and religious views - through study and reflection -and I don't really need to revisit those issues.

Finally, modern fiction is worthless, so I've given up on it. Either its directed at an audience I'm not a part of, or its simply badly written. Or both.

rcocean said...

I do however have a lot of classic fiction, and even some Tom Wolfe on audio, so I love to listen to it while driving or exercising.

GMay said...

Oh yeah, and America's Politico...that's comedy gold dude. Keep it up!

Chip Ahoy said...


Anonymous said...

I always read it as a story that enabled me to understand a little better the horror of living under a regime like the Taliban, with the American setting making it easier to empathize.

It's been a long time since I read The Handmaid's Tale, but as I recall, the novel was specific about indicting Christianity as the source of the forthcoming theocracy.

An interesting aside. Doris Lessing, a feminist heroine of an earlier generation was a communist who later embraced Islam.

She later rejected communism. Don't know about Islam.

DaveW said...

As I've grown older my eyesight is worsened and as that progresses I have less inclination to invest the increasing effort necessary to read poorly written books. So I'm more likely to toss one aside nowadays than I was years ago.

When I could read with uncorrected vision in dim light a badly written book was no big deal.

howzerdo said...

shouting, I agree with bearing. (Full disclosure, I love Atwood's writing.) I'm not suggesting that religion was absent as a theme, but what you note was more a characteristic of the movie (which was terrible) than the book.

Synova said...

I think it's wisdom.

Writers find it harder to read books after a while because you notice what the writer has done or not done and it's too easy to be critical and too hard to just enjoy the story.

I'm sure this is true of "older people" as well. It's going to be harder to ignore the annoying bits, to not be critical about the presentation and impossible to ignore the ideas to be able to just enjoy.

Plus, I think, you start to value your time more.

Also reading itself becomes more physically difficult.

Synova said...

I thought that America's Politico was being sarcastic.

That was sarcasm, right?

Joe said...

I read less than I used to--from about five books a week to maybe five a year--and watch fewer movies than I used to--from four or so a week to one or two and most the time, I don't finish them.

One reason is that I bore much easier since there are fewer stories and characters that interest me.

I've also past the point where reading and movies are intellectually stimulating--I get enough of that at work, in my leisure I aim to be entertained above all (if you have some intellectual hoo-ha in there that's fine, but first tell me/show me a great story.)

Another influence are computer games, many of which are far more entertaining and offer me much more interaction with my children (who play the same games--sometimes, we've played them together, with my running the keyboard and my youngest son being my spotter [and reminding me to reload].)

Finally, I've also learned to not care. Reading isn't some great, noble thing, it just is. If you like to read, great. If not, great. Who cares?

Having said all that, I keep meaning to stop at the library and pick up Sebastian Junger's latest book. I also keep hoping Mark Bowden comes out with another book, though I probably love his commentary in documentaries even more.

Anonymous said...

I've never seen the movie of The Handmaid's Tale.

I read the book.

The book indicted western culture and Christianity.

It was an idiot thesis by a spoiled brat white woman.

It should have destroyed Atwood's career.

Joe said...

I've never seen the movie of The Handmaid's Tale.

Consider yourself lucky. It was one of the worse movies I've ever sat through. My wife gave up before it was half done.

(Do remember that this was at the time when HBO was making movies and they all sucked. Imagine if Scy Fy channel took their silly movies seriously.)

Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) said...

The 'correct' answer is not available -- as we age our bullshit filtres tend to get much better.

A couple of years ago there was a book I had bought ... halfway through chapter 3 I tossed it into the wood stove so I could recover at least a bit of what I had spent.

This comment from a guy who happily reads Homer and Sylla's 730 pages on the "History of Interest Rates."

There's a lot of pig piffle out there, but even in your 60s you can only avoid 90% of it by reading the title and contents on Amazon.

BTW, my mother, a librarian comfortably along in her 90s and a published author herself, tossed a book into our stove a couple of years ago -- same reason.

"Gawd," she said, "I'd sooner listen to your last wormy apples fall on the ground than keep reading this tripe."

roesch-voltaire said...

Lessing still follows Sufism, but I believe she had left communism behind by the time she wrote Golden Notebook in 64, which my first wife insisted that I read. I liked her early science fiction-- the Canopus In Argos, but grew bored with the later stuff and have not read her since. Now this blog makes me wonder if I should find time to read some of her later work. So many books, so many hiking trails, so little time.

Peter Hoh said...

A favorite professor once spoke of the rewards of rereading books at a later stage in life. With a twinkle in his eye, he argued that one should only read books one has already read.

sakredkow said...

In my 50's, I'm now pretty severely editing what I read. I'm doing a lot of rereading of stuff I read when I was younger, and boy has my understanding of many books changed!

sakredkow said...

Peter Hoh's professor sounds like my kind of guy.

jamboree said...

When I was younger, fiction primarily provided a template of sorts - things I wanted to happen to me. I could experience it vicariously, fall in love with certain elements, and try out different identities before they actually happened.

As I get older, there is less chance of most of the stuff happening. It therefore becomes much less interesting. If anything, I'd rather write now than read.

Synova said...

Atwood doesn't consider herself a genre science fiction writer. It would be wrong to interpret her work in a context in which she isn't writing it.

As "literature" she had access to an audience that would never stoop to read that SF hack work and thus thought that her ideas were new and edgy.

John Stodder said...

Maybe everybody reads more that way than they did ten or twenty years ago, because we all have less patience for narratives that unfold at someone else's pace now that we have the power to pick and choose so easily how to get the information we want.

Yes, I think that's it. My mother is 82 and though capable of using the Internet, mostly just does e-mail. She has many infirmities and is constantly on pain medication. But she still manages to read about 2-3 books a month in addition to the NY Times and LA Times every day, the New Yorker and several other magazines every week. She belongs to a book club comprised of people in their late 60s and up, all of them prolific readers.

So I have to think it's the influence of the Web and current pop culture, based on an admittedly small sample.

I know I read a little less than I used to, and I attribute it to being on the Internet, something I need to do for work in addition to pleasure and curiosity. I use the web like I used to use the library when I'd go there to study during college. A massive zone of pleasurable distraction.

Anonymous said...

As "literature" she had access to an audience that would never stoop to read that SF hack work and thus thought that her ideas were new and edgy.

I think you're all missing the point.

The stupidity of Atwood's work might be a great argument for why you shouldn't read contemporary fiction.

The Handmaid's Tale was a classic work of PC phony victims... American white women. The premise is so loony that Atwood should have become a laughing stock.

Atwood's attempt to indict American Christianity as dangerous and potentially fascist should also have earned her ridicule.

Is anybody getting the point here?

Instead, Atwood was celebrated as if she was an American Solzhenitsyn.

In the fact of this absurdity, what do you make of the state of American literature?

traditionalguy said...

There is a surfeit of well written books in many fields. Digesting them takes months of intermittent reading because there is so little lengthy periods of non-interruption. That is another good reason to take a sabbath rest once a week to let your mind turn off to responsibilities and drink in some new thoughts. And I certainly agree that the reread of a good book after age 60 opens up a new appreciation for preserved genius that was taken for granted many years before. On our last trip to the mountains, I reread East of Eden, and marveled at the author's genius.

Anonymous said...

rereading of stuff I read when I was younger, and boy has my understanding of many books changed!

When I read "Great Expectations" in 9th grade, I hated it. I re-read it years later and couldn't believe how much it had improved.

John Burgess said...

I definitively meet the definition of 'older reader'. The only major difference between my reading habits in my 60s and those in my teens is that I've more time to read now.

I have learned quite a lot in the meantime, though, and certainly ID BS faster, particularly within my fields.

Contemporary fiction is no better, no worse than it has been in any given decade. It's just different. Sturgeon's Law (95% of everything is crap) still holds sway.

I'm still in love with good public libraries, too. They save me countless dollars. The Internet saves me countless hours and dollars, with hard-to-find journal articles readily at hand, often for free.

BJM said...

I'm with rh and patience for BS or navel gazing pap.

I recently began to re-read our collection (500-600 volumes) of classic sci-fi that has been relegated to the spare room bookshelves for the past 40 years.

Prescient and still entertaining...I'm glad we resisting sending them to the Goodwill during house moves.

I'm usually an early adopter of technology, but am a bit of a Luddite when it comes to books. I tried a Kindle but prefer the smell, heft and feel of a printed book.

Dust Bunny Queen said...
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Dust Bunny Queen said...

1. There are only so many plots available and variations on them. After 30 to 40 years of reading, you learn to quickly recognize the underlying plot/theme.

2. Many writers today don't have a clue on how to actually write a fiction novel. Many read like screen plays with nothing but a bunch of hackneyed dialogue and no character development. My husband likes these types, especially Elmore Leonard, but I have a low tolerance for nothing but dialogue. I want to have some description of the scenery, historical context and introspection of the character's inner thoughts etc.

3. Sometimes the characters in the books, ESPECIALLY women's books or women characters are clueless twits who should be locked in a closet until they figure out how to walk and chew gum.

4. Probably why #3 is true is because many books are written by and written for younger people who also don't have any idea about writing, plot development or character development.

I blame our crappy public school system.

This isn't to say that bad books haven't been written in the past. I just have much less tolerance for it. Or as already stated: as we get older our bullshit tolerance is less and less.

William said...

More good books have been written than I can possibly read....With the exception of Philip Roth, who is my advance scout in the minefield of aging I no longer read fiction....I like to read biographies and memoirs. We have the cheat sheet and know how history turned out. As a variant of schadenfreude, it's interesting to observe the stupidity of our great men......There are several works of fiction that I have reread at various points in life. It's like encountering an old friend from school and seeing how he's turned out. Fitzgerald is now a cooler guy than Hemingway..... With the exception of Boswell's Life of Johnson, I cannot think of a single non-fiction book that I have ever re-read......I read about thirty books a year. What with the internet, Sponge Bob Squarepants, and porn, I'm not able to read as much as I would like.

Synova said...

"Atwood's attempt to indict American Christianity as dangerous and potentially fascist should also have earned her ridicule.

Is anybody getting the point here?

A case of mass hysteria? (sexist pun intended)

But, big picture, people really were talking about the impending theocracy at the time and Atwood wasn't the target of ridicule at all among her target audience of excessively comfortable, over educated, white women.

I mean, I sometimes feel like I'm the only person on the planet who bothered to ridicule Erica Jong for assuring an Italian magazine that Cheney was bringing the National Guard home so that Bush could stage a coup and deny Obama his presidency.

I've been making jokes about the impending theocracy for longer than that.

People dump this ideological idiocy down the memory hole and then have the audacity to point at the other side as anti-intellectual.

It's amazing.

Atwood is apparently a talented writer who knows her audience, but she sure didn't want anyone calling her work science fiction.

And if it *had* been science fiction she'd have done a better job because she would have been familiar with previous author's work.

HT said...


I was so intrigued with the Erica Jong thing, I googled it. You need to recount what her thinking really was. To be fair, in the hyper anxious scenario, first Obama loses, then the National Guard is deployed, due to the violence that O's loss would induce (presumably among the LEFT, no?). So no, Cheney (in EJ's hyper anxiety) was not going to instigate a war, but help repel the attack.

HT said...

I thought I pasted the Corriere della Sera link, but I guess not. Here it is

HT said...

Oh, ok. Got it.

"The record shows that voting machines in America are rigged."


Synova said...

Yeah, HT. It was pretty incoherent.

I was distracted from the particular details by the vision of Cheney Rambo style, crossed bandoleers over a ripped, bare chest, one of those short machine guns in both hands before a back-drop of National Guard tanks.


Christy said...

My experience in various book clubs with members spanning the 30s to the 70s is that we read less fiction as we age. As DBQ pointed out, we already know all the stories. We want something fresh, which is frequently non-fiction.

But even the fiction we select is increasingly of cultures unfamiliar to us. Lisa See's Snowflower and the Secret Fan set during the late foot-binding days of China was very big on the reading club circuit.

I'm a fan of Atwood, but I suspect I don't take away from her novels what I was supposed to. Oryx and Crake was about how technology is good and ecoterroism is bad. Right?

I love Synova's on target comment about Handmaid's Tale that readers didn't realize it was SF" thus thought that her ideas were new and edgy." For a fact A Handmaid's Tale is a not very disguised rewrite of Heinlein's 1939 novella If This Goes On....

I found myself interested in Sufism for a while. I mean, what's not to love about whirling dervishes? Besides, Captain Sir Richard Frances Burton, a big hero of mine, was a convert. Alas, mysticism fascinates, but never convinces me.

I also agree with Bearing about our fast paceed culture making us less tolerant of wordiness. Raise your hand if you skip right over lenghty comments. I picked up a George Sand, or maybe it was George Elliot, short story in which the first sentence was the entire first page. I reshelved the book.

Robert Cook said...

"Oryx and Crake was about how technology is good and ecoterroism is bad. Right?"


I read Oryx and Crake last year and enjoyed it very much. I've got the sort-of-sequel, The Year of the Flood standing by to read soon.

I hardly think we're meant to receive Oryx and Crake as a paean to technology. I think Atwood is merely describing in imaginative terms the world she sees around us now, including, among other things, rapidly accelerating technological advances, dramatic economic disparities, the rise of corporations as quasi-governing states, the retreat of the privileged into walled communities, an increasing removal of human experience from the real, replaced by the artificial, e.g., from prefabricated foods to managed environments, both actual and virtual, and the unanticipated consequences of accident or conscious act that can so quickly be so devastating on a mass scale in such a world.

A great book, by the way.

Indigo Red said...

In my youth I read far more literature and fiction. When I read such today, it's as though I've read the story before. And, indeed, I have. There are only so many stories in the world and they are told over and over again.

Indigo Red said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
William said...

Do you know what I hate about watching Sponge Bob Squarepants? Sometimes you watch more than half an episode and then remember that you saw it before. When that happens I always feel like I have wasted my time. It's not like there's layers of complexity and meaning that take more than one viewing. It's just a total waste of time to watch a Sponge Bob rerun. Although I guess if you could get through the whole show without realizing that it was a repeat, then it wouldn't really be a waste of time. Sort of like if a tree falls in the forest kind of thing.......Some would argue that my life up to this point has been an almost complete waste of time, but there are gradations in this sort of thing. I don't want to be the kind of person who goes thru life watching Sponge Bob reruns.

Synova said...

Sponge Bob is great. Brilliant even.

Robert Cook said...


Some would suggest that, as a person older than ten or twelve, one shouldn't be the sort of person who goes through life watching Spongebob Squarepants first runs!

I wouldn' be one of those people though; Spongebob is great, and watching reruns does not lessen their delight.

caplight said...

Three reasons:
the older I get the easier it is to spot the faddish things in literature.
I have a lot of life experience that allows me to feel confident in my own conclusions.
At my age I'd rather thoughtfully connect the dots instead of just collecting more of them.

amba said...

You know what you like and demand from a book (or food, or friend), and if you are not getting it, you simply and promptly lose interest. (One of my demands of books is surprise.)

Having a young mind felt like flash floods running all over the surface of the earth, going anywhere and everywhere. An older mind follows deep, carved channels. That doesn't mean they can't lead to new places. They often do. But it takes a strong force to impress you enough to overflow your banks. When something does, it feels like being young again.

bearing said...

I said The Handmaid's Tale was "speculative fiction," not "science fiction." I know the difference, thank you.

Clearly part of Atwood's thesis was to attack a certain branch of American Christianity, but American Christianity is far bigger than that branch. Quakers and Catholics are pointedly martyred in Atwood's book.

Nor does she attack "the West" (the protagonist had attempted to flee to Canada; Japanese tourists in Western dress are objects of longing; the freedoms she had enjoyed are gone.) If anything, the book is a lamentation for Western freedoms lost.

amba said...

I wasn't a fiction reader for years. Lately (age 64) I've almost accidentally started reading novels, and loving it. I had an Anne Tyler and a John Irving novel I was going to give away, unread. Then I opened the Tyler (Back When We Were Grownups) and got drawn in. Now the same thing is happening with the Irving (A Widow For One Year). I just idly opened it in the middle and saw something I related to.

It's nonfiction I'm fed up with. As a lifelong overthinker, I've run up against the limitations of ideas. Life spills over and out of any theory or analysis. Good novels (without political agendas) are capacious and nonjudgmental enough to catch a cupful of it, and the taste of the ocean is everywhere the same, and always different.

Christy said...

Robert Cook, I did say that I don't always take away what Atwood intended us to learn from her novels. I very much enjoyed Oryx and Crake and was delighted at the complexity of all the ideas. She didn't make technologists into monsters - which I, as an engineer, take as a win in modern fiction.

Amba, I've grown up with Tyler- since the mid-70s anyway. Her protagonists aged with me and nailed so many of the issues we faced in the times we lived. Her Pulitzer winning Breathing Lessons is a LOL joy.

Margaret Drabble's novels follow a similar arc, but not so funny. She is so good that, after a year or so to get over her anti-America screed during the Iraqi War, I went back to reading her. I remember being much impressed in the mid-70s novel The Realms of Gold, considered feminist by some, when she made the point that earning the right to be bank president also meant earning the right to shovel feces in the sewer.

kentuckyliz said...

My dad kept reading whole books until the final furlong. He kept a clear mind even while his body failed him. He read economics, music history, anthropology, politics, history...a real renaissance man. I hope I can get back to more interesting reading in old age. While I whack away at the career, it seems that most of my reading is non-fiction and professionally profession or the subject I'm teaching next. What a bore I have become. A high-achieving, high-productivity bore.