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New Book: The Poetics of Aging


Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too.

John Keats, To Autumn

reading our livesWilliam Randall and Elizabeth McKim offer a refreshing new take on aging in Reading Our Lives: The Poetics of Growing Old (Oxford University Press).

According to the authors, gerontologists have concentrated on the "outside" of aging: chiefly, its biological dimensions. These accumulating deficits include loss of mobility, agility, and memory and diminished strength and attractiveness – the bad news, in other words. The good news has all been overlooked.

Randall, a professor of gerontology and McKim, a professor of English at St. Thomas University (Fredericton), revise the notion of aging as decline, by focusing on the "inside" of the aging process. This is the subjective experience of aging – how it feels on the inside. We have each of us a lifestory – an inner text – the memories and impressions of all the people we have met, events we have experienced and all the joys and troubles we’ve known.

This "inside" version offers another lens on the aging process, providing fresh possibilities for the middle and late years. So, growing old involves more than just taking care of our bodies through a healthy diet and exercise. And it involves more than keeping mentally fit through doing crosswords or playing bridge. Growing old means taking care of our stories, too. Potentially, our stories can be a source of great strength in coping with the challenges and changes of later life.

In the book, Randall and McKim look at aging as potentially a creative endeavour of fashioning meaning from the texts that make up our inner worlds. Simply put, life is not just the sum of all the events that have made us from the moment we were born (the outside story); life is also what we make and remake of these events through memory and imagination (the inside story), especially as we age.

As psychologist Florida Scott-Maxwell wrote in her 80s: "You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done, which may take some time, you are fierce with reality."

True, many of us under-read the texts of our own lives. Yet, the authors argue, "Reading our lives is something that all of us are engaged in anyway, all the time, and it differs only in degree from what we do when engrossed in a novel or lost in a movie."

The authors show how the habit of self-reading, especially in life’s second half, can push us to try on the rest of ourselves – to restart our stalled stories and to embark on new adventures. Moreover, self-reading can bolster the desire to widen our personal story and connect more profoundly with future generations and with life’s mystery