LLife begins at 40, my father used to say. He pulled that particular piece of folk wisdom from a self-help book, written by Walter B Pitkin and published in 1932. Just 50 years earlier, 40 had been the end-of-life expectation, so naturally my father was relieved. that it would have increased. at 60
Pitkin’s claim was based on the belief that the benefits of modern life, having resulted in higher living standards, would give people, both women and men, many more years of productive existence, provided they adopt a positive attitude. positive towards life. The latter my father had in abundance.
As I approach my 90th birthday, I have good reason to remember my father’s mantra, to recognize that my own life began, or perhaps began again, at 80; twice the age that welcomed him, and for a reason that many people might find puzzling. So let me explain.
Thanks to a rereading of Jane Austen’s fiction, I have experienced a rejuvenation of spirit and energy that has transformed my life. Rereading for the sheer pleasure of Austen’s language and characters when I experienced some depression in my 60s began a process that became more serious as I continued to reread the novels in my 70s and became increasingly curious about the relationship between reading, learning and imagination.
In my eighties, I reassessed Jane Austen’s fiction in a doctoral thesis, and was commissioned to explore my own identity, dispositions, and values in a recently published reading memoir.
Now I find that the processes of rereading, research and reflection have led me to the best moment of my life. Reading memoirs raised questions in my mind about memory, truth, and art. By weaving these aspects of my own reading experiences into my thesis, I discovered parts of myself and aspects of my most intimate relationships that I had not previously explored.
On the one hand, I felt far enough away to take stock of the best and worst moments of my life. And on the other, I immersed myself deeply in the reflective process. I was surprised to find that long-standing dissatisfactions were evaporating around me. I was experiencing waves of euphoria as my level of wellness rose beyond what I had previously known. As I wrote the memoirs, reading, writing, and rereading occupied my days and gave them added meaning.
I have been a “read and respond reader” since childhood, feeling my way through books and sometimes emerging as a different person; often a happier one, having experienced the sweetness and usefulness of the literature described by the Roman poet Horace.
From the beginning I was reading in spirals, a concept devised by reading theorist Louise Rosenblatt. She imagines a series of arcs as readers turn their attention from the words on the page to their own reservoir of experiences and memories; then return to the words before continuing with a deeper sense of commitment.
I came to transactional reading of Rosenblatt naturally, but it can be taught. Young readers can be encouraged to surprise themselves in the act of feeling even as they discover new ways of thinking about the world and their place in it. This echoes again in Horace: in his Ars Poetica he wrote that what we feel and what we learn when we engage with literature are intimately connected and should not be separated.
Horace’s belief has been affirmed by current research in the field of neuroscience. In the field of education, several researchers affirm that rereading is different from initial reading, something that lifelong readers have discovered for themselves.
Vivian Gornick, novelist and literary critic, recalls her responses to the novel Sons and Lovers at different ages: Reading DH Lawrence’s coming-of-age story as a teenager, she identified with Miriam, the virginal bride of young Paul Morel. In her thirties, after a failed marriage and the discovery of his own sexuality, she identified with Paul’s erotic lover. And she later she still identifies with a more mature Paul, the male lead who learns the value of self-scrutiny and embarks on a quest for self-knowledge.
Of course, to be worth rereading, novels must have the potential to generate new knowledge, personally and culturally. For this reason I have reread the same six Austen novels many times. They have offered me the richness and complexity required to help me reassess where I am in my life, the quality of my past and present relationships, and the values at stake in my life choices.
When I read Pride and Prejudice at age 15, I read it like a domestic comedy; I loved the Bennet sisters because they were lively and, despite all their bickering, they were having fun. The girls put up with their mother’s nerves and tolerated their father’s sarcasm without giving in to resentment. That helped me when I was a teenager.
Rereading the same novel at 30, when I was plagued by ambivalent feelings about where I was in life, I turned my attention elsewhere. I paid close attention to the nature of intimacy, considering whether prudence should prevail over passion as Mrs. Gardner advises her niece Elizabeth; or if I could reconcile myself to Charlotte Lucas’s view that happiness in marriage is a matter of chance.
At the age of 90 (almost!) I reread, reflect and console myself with the words of Elizabeth Bennet, “until this moment I never knew myself”. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for.