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Going Places Between Covers Is the Best Therapy

By Stuart Mitchner

I’ve just returned from an online adventure, one of those therapeutic expeditions available to aging- and sheltering-in-place columnists writing about, in this case, self-help books geared for seniors like himself.

I’m leading with Joan Chittister’s The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully (BlueBridge $19.95) because the cover image of a hand resting on an open book looks good on the same page with the cover and subject of Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why (Scribner Touchstone $17), and its suggestion that people “ultimately” read “to strengthen the self.”

The cover on The Gift of Years definitely aroused my curiosity. Like any traveler in the realm of rare books, I’d go a long way online to identify that charismatic, centuries-old volume, but since no amount of Zooming gives me a clue, my only choice is to discover as much as I can about the painting itself. Who painted it, where and when, and who does the hand belong to? My virtual quest takes me to a seaside town in Cornwall, near Penzance, home of Gilbert and Sullivan’s pirates and the gallery displaying the portrait (Mrs. Forbes, the artist’s mother), painted in 1910 by Stanhope Alexander Forbes (1857-1947). Seen in full, the picture tells another story. While the cover image of hand and book suggest a patina of graceful aging befitting the title, the seated woman’s melancholy expression seems ironically at odds with a book called The Gift of Years. A closer look at her hands and it’s clear that they’re more accustomed to hard work and rough weather than graceful aging and rare volumes like the one in the painting. It’s easier to imagine “Mrs. Forbes,” a French woman born Juliette de Guise who married “an English railway manager,” as a character from a novel of the period, like Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives Tale or E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End.

Forster came to mind because he’s quoted in Chittister’s introduction: “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” Once again curiosity sets me searching. Which novel does that come from? Or is it from an essay? And how do I know it’s actually from Forster? Soon I find myself at a Google crossroads, one path leading to 1907 and Forster’s novel The Longest Journey, the other taking me to 1949, where the same quote about letting go is attributed word for word to Joseph Campbell, who wrote about mythological journeys in The Hero of a Thousand Faces. Apparently, Campbell’s followers have staked his claim to a sentence he found in Forster. And who set all this mental traveling in motion? An author whose community review on Goodreads portrays her as “a Benedictine sister who was voted the most inspirational woman alive in a 2007 survey.”

A Seuss Surprise

It was a joy to see something by Dr. Seuss on the list of self-help titles for seniors. You’re Only Old Once!: A Book for Obsolete Children (Random House $17.99) will resonate with fans of another Seuss oldster, the Lorax, and his lament for the truffula tree. If you’re looking for longevity, “you can live to 103 in Fotta-fa-Zee,” as long as “you chew nuts from the Tutt-a-Tutt Tree.”

Richard Farr’s review says the book “follows ‘you’ (an elderly gent in a suit and white moustache) through a physical check-up in some fiendish geriatric clinic. You are measured, prodded, and subjected to all the medical indignities familiar and unfamiliar to the elderly. ‘You must see Dr. Pollen, our Allergy Whiz, who knows every sniffle and itch that there is … He will check your reactions to thumbtacks and glue, catcher’s mitts, leaf mould, and cardigans too. Nasturtiums and marble cake, white and blue chalks, anthracite coal and the feathers of hawks.’ The blurb on the back says it all: ‘Is this a children’s book? Well … not immediately. You buy a copy for your child now and you give it to him on his 70th birthday.’”

Back in Bloom

In an interview on concerning how he came to write How to Read and Why, Harold Bloom mentions being deluged with mail from people saying how pleased they are that he’s “writing about literature for the common reader.” As a result, he became aware of a need that he felt “highly qualified and highly driven to meet” for “a self-help book, indeed, an inspiration book, which would not only encourage solitary readers of all kinds all over the world to go on reading for themselves, but also support them in their voyages of self-discovery through reading.”

When asked how reading great literature can provide an alternative to the standard self-help books, Bloom singles out the stories of Chekhov because they have “the uncanny faculty, rather like Shakespeare in that regard, to persuade the reader that certain truths about himself or herself, which are totally authentic, totally real” are being demonstrated “for the very first time.” It’s not that either author “created those truths,” but that “without the assistance of Shakespeare and Chekhov, we might never be able to see what is really there.”

By now you may have noticed that my therapeutic adventure has been about finding interesting ways to avoid generic brain games and nutrition manuals and coloring books that have no redeeming visual value, particularly those coyly patronizing items designed for the second childhood of old age. One relatively tolerable example of the genre is Elena Bogdanovych’s My Sweet Home: Coloring Book for Seniors, with its cartoon-cozy cover of a living room with baby blue easy chairs, flowers on the table, and a fire in the fireplace. The homey image is followed by a briskly clinical introduction pointing out that coloring can “elicit feelings of peace, relaxation, and enjoyment, help individuals suffering from dementia, decrease blood pressure and heart rate, improve motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and muscle control while acting as an easy means of self-expression.”

Dr. Shakespeare

When I need some enlightened companionship for my frequent visits to Dr. Shakespeare, I still go with Harold Bloom’s The Invention of the Human. Call it what you will, Bloom’s Chicken Soup for Aging Readers of the Bard, it’s a far more substantial restorative than anthologies like How to Read and Why and its sequel Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children. Reading Bloom, you always feel that Shakespeare is an approving presence whose characters are alive in the narrative of the time, any time, even the pandemic spring of 2020. In fact, King Lear and the Fool make an appearance in Lynn Casteel Harper’s just published On Vanishing: Mortality, Dementia, and What It Means to Disappear (Catapult $26). One of Shakespeare’s most enticing mind games, a brainteasing challenge for the storm-blown old mad king in all of us, Lear is among the forces that give On Vanishing its “idiosyncratic energy,” and “the unexpectedness of its focus,” as Parul Sehgal observes in a recent New York Times review. Thus Lear’s “last lingering companion, the Fool,” offers what caregivers require, according to Harper, “loyalty, steadfastness, wit.”

Wait, hold it, stop the music. Isn’t Lear’s last companion Cordelia, his once estranged, now beloved daughter, the cathartic source of his derangement, the epicenter of his dementia? Anyway, the Fool mysteriously disappears after Act III. Where did he go and why? Or maybe Cordelia’s the Fool in disguise? The actress who played both parts in last year’s New York production should know: “The Fool is famously difficult as a part,” says Ruth Wilson. “He speaks in riddles and his jokes are 400 years old.”

For seniors or anyone else in need of nutrition for the mind or therapy for the imagination, what could be better than the solving of difficult parts and riddles and disappearing caregivers?

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