Thursday, June 10, 2021

The Midlife Mind


In the May 7, 2021 issue of The Times Literary Supplement is a review by Hal Jensen of The Midlife Mind, Literature and the art of Ageing by Ben Hutchinson.  Hutchinson recommends the reading of literature as an aid to help one endure ageing.  The specifics of what he recommends seem to be the reading (with the help of Hutchinson's advice) some of the authors included in any "Great Books" program. 

Jensen writes ". . . Hutchinson settles into his main workout routines.  These consist of chapters on Dante, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Goethe, the Victorians (George Eliot and Henry James), T. S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir.  For each, Hutchinson begins with a biographical-critical-historical survey of the author, with a close look at how they wrote about -- or out of -- those nebulous and crisis-ridden middle years."

Further down Hutchinson writes, "Each chapter ends with a look at a literary legacy and asks what lessons these writers can provide for our journey through the middle, Dante teaches us how to start again while still in transit, Goethe shows the value of restless curiosity, Eliot demonstrates the potency -- and necessary difficulty -- of late changes in belief, and Beauvoir the benefits of gender awareness when ageing. . . Still, I can't help wishing he had left out the 'Lessons' altogether.  They sound glib and patronizing . . ."

Hutchinson's audience would seem to be those in his age group, i.e., people in their 40s, who have not encountered the classics, and are worried about growing older.  Jensen makes short work of Hutchinson and concludes, "I respect Hutchinson's desire to help, but I have probably learned more about time and mortality from working on my allotment than from any amount of reading.  When it comes to dealing with middle age -- and I say this well aware of my audience -- books are not enough."

I had a long career in engineering but along the way anticipated that when those with degrees in Engineering retired with no clearly-thought-out plans, I would be able to retire to the pleasures of reading. 

One might object that formal engineers might have adequate plans for retirement as well.  My own observation has been that many, maybe even most, don't, or at least didn't (I retired in 1998).  I recall an engineer, Jim C., who was pointed out to us as having the perfect engineering work-ethic.  He had no outside interests.  Engineering was his whole life.  About a week after his retirement, he unexpectedly died.

An engineer I knew much better, Ray L., spent weekends and vacations building his retirement home in Northern California.  I was shocked when he died unexpectedly before he had a chance to enjoy his new home. 

These, and others, were cautionary examples, but perhaps anyone who is educated in what was in the past considered to be a "trade," is at risk, mentally and perhaps physically, when attempting to prepare for retirement -- at least more so than in a Liberal Arts major.*

I did take to heart the examples of people I worked with.  Among other things, I had a list of authors I didn't get a chance to read while I was in school, and worked my way through that  during lunch periods, weekends, etc. for several years.  To respond to Jensen (although I don't know what his "allotment" is), I did have a lot of physical interests.  I was a free-diver (managing to keep my freezer full of fish during many years) and a hiker (even to the guiding of small groups up into the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains).  But I anticipated that in my old age I would do less diving and hiking and more reading and so congratulated myself that unlike Jim C. and Ray L. I was educated well enough to (in retirement) engage in elaborate, self-devised reading programs with relative competence (joining Jensen in feeling no need of Hutchinson's "lessons.") 

*How does one with an English major become a competent enough engineer to have a modestly successful career and a better than average retirement benefit?  I can take no credit for that.  I feared I would never graduate from college if I majored in a subject I wasn't interested in.   And so I refused to worry about getting a job until after I graduated.  Then I went through an employment agency who reviewed my qualifications and sent me to Douglas Aircraft which at the time was being criticized by the Air Force for sending them poorly written engineering documentation.  The chief engineer ordered Douglas administrators to find recent college graduates capable of understanding engineering who could also write. 

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