Joshua Prager: What Can Great Writers Teach Us About Growing Up and Getting Old? We all stumble across similar ideas as we age, and some of these revelations have passed into the books we love. Journalist Joshua Prager explores the stages of life through quotes from great writers.
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What Can Great Writers Teach Us About Growing Up and Getting Old?

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What Can Great Writers Teach Us About Growing Up and Getting Old?

What Can Great Writers Teach Us About Growing Up and Getting Old?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So when it comes to the way we start out life, we're all pretty familiar with the milestones. Between 6 and 9 months, you learn to crawl - teeth, maybe a year in - walking at about 15 months. And give or take, everyone pretty much goes through the same stuff.

JOSHUA PRAGER: You have these incremental steps that the infant makes. And we're all sort of nod in agreement. Of course, yes, there are these steps that babies go through, but there are these steps that are just as profound and that are just as universal that continue on throughout the rest of our lives.

RAZ: For instance, says journalist Joshua Prager, there's something about being 9 years old that we can all recognize in this line from the writer Robert Penn Warren...

PRAGER: He says when you are 9 years old, what you remember seems forever for you remember everything, and everything is important, stands big and full and fills up time and is so solid that you can walk around and around it like a tree and look at it.

RAZ: ...Or something about the age of 16 we all recognize in this quote...

PRAGER: At 16, the adolescent knows what it is to suffer...

RAZ: ...From the French philosopher Rousseau.

PRAGER: ...For he himself has suffered. But he hardly knows that others suffer, too.

RAZ: The idea, of course, is all through life there are experiences that all humans more or less share. And Josh Prager recently collected these ideas into a book. It's called "100 Years," and each page has a quote from a famous writer for every year of life. Some are harder to hear than others, like this quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald about the age of 30.

PRAGER: He says 30...

RAZ: Brace yourself if you're not there yet.

PRAGER: ...The promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm, thinning hair.

RAZ: Wow.

PRAGER: That's obviously (laughter) - that's kind of harsh...

RAZ: Yeah.

PRAGER: ...And sad. But it's also the time where we're finally getting our feet beneath us.

RAZ: Yeah.

PRAGER: And here you have this beautiful quote by Thomas Mann from "Joseph and His Brothers." At 30, a man steps out of the darkness and wasteland of preparation into active life. It is the time to show oneself, the time of fulfillment.

RAZ: Yeah.

PRAGER: Yeah, there are all these turning points in it.

RAZ: Yeah.

PRAGER: But nonetheless, completely undeniable is the fact that there are these great patterns to life, and we all go through them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: The idea behind Josh's book is that precisely because of life's great patterns, there are things we can learn about ourselves wherever we are in life from people who have been there before, and that is wisdom.

So today on the show - ideas about wisdom in every phase of life and why the best wisdom seems to come before or after we need it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: So first to Josh Prager on the TED stage about where the idea to collect a hundred years of wisdom came from.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

PRAGER: I'm turning 44 next month, and I have a sense that that 44 is going to be a very good year - a year of fulfillment, realization. I have that sense not because of anything particular in store for me but because I read it would be a good year in a 1968 book by Norman Mailer. He felt his own age. Forty-four, wrote Mailer in "The Armies Of The Night," felt as if he were a solid embodiment of bone, muscle, heart, mind and sentiment, to be a man as if he had arrived.

Yes, I know Mailer wasn't writing about me, but I also know that he was. For all of us - you, me, the subject of his book - age more or less in step, proceed from birth along the same great sequence, through the wonders and confinements of childhood, the emancipations and frustrations of adolescence, the empowerments and milestones of adulthood, the recognitions and resignations of old age. There are patterns to life, and they are shared.

As Thomas Mann wrote, it will happen to me as to them. We don't simply live these patterns. We record them, too. We write them down in books where they become narratives that we can then read and recognize. Books tell us who we've been, who we are, who we will be, too. So they have for millennia. As James Salter wrote, life passes into pages if it passes into anything.

RAZ: OK, Josh, so we have this book of yours which is kind of a list of a hundred years of wisdom for each year of life, a quote on each page. I am 41. (Muttering) I'm 41.

PRAGER: (Laughter).

RAZ: And what's my quote?

PRAGER: Well, your quote is by Naipaul. And it's, when we are 41, we all think it would be nice to make a fresh start. It's the kind of thing we laugh at when we're 42.

RAZ: Ah.

PRAGER: (Laughter).

RAZ: This is amazing. This is so true.

PRAGER: It's funny. With this book, what I've noticed - to a person, when they open it up, they turn to their page.

RAZ: Yeah.

PRAGER: It's very familiar to people. And so perhaps this entire arc of growing older was condensed into fewer years years ago. And my way to sort of share that with people was to point out that the phrase the yellow leaf was something that Christopher Isherwood used to describe a person of 53 only one century after Lord Byron used it to describe a person of 36.

RAZ: Wow.

PRAGER: And yet those same sort of ebbs and flows were things that people experienced then as we do now.

RAZ: So let's say - I don't know - 21 because everyone peaks - like, it seems like consistently when you ask people what age they want to be, like, all the polls show that people tend to land on around 21 - age 21...

PRAGER: Wow, wow.

RAZ: ...Which is weird to me because I hated being 21. I was, like, desperate to, like, get out of my 20s. But 21 - so what does it - so here I am. We're 21.

PRAGER: Charles Dickens...

RAZ: Charles Dickens.

PRAGER: ...Twenty-one one, "David Copperfield" - I have come legally to man's estate. I have attained the dignity of 21. But this is a sort of dignity that may be thrust upon one. Let me think what I have achieved.

So there's someone who is sort of realizing that maybe you've got to make your own way.

RAZ: Yeah.

PRAGER: On - for 17, it's beautiful. A little quote by Arthur Rimbaud, a poem - no one's serious at 17 when lindens line the promenade. So that for me encapsulates, you know, the beauty of teendom where you're so sure of yourself. But of course life will humble you (laughter). Life humbles all of us.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

PRAGER: Milton Glaser, the great graphic designer who today is 85 - all those years a ripening and an apotheosis, wrote Nabakov, noted to me that like art and like color, literature helps us to remember what we've experienced. And indeed when I share the list with my grandfather, he nodded in recognition. He was at 95 and soon to die, which, wrote Roberto Bolano, is the same as never dying.

And looking back, he said to me that, yes, Proust was right that at 22, we are sure we will not die just as a thanatologist named Edwin Shneidman was right that at 90, we are sure we will. I know that I am not done. I still have my life to live, still have many more pages to pass into. And mindful of Mailer, I await 44. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: So Josh, collecting all this wisdom about, you know, how we experience each year of our lives, what - like, what stuck out to you about it?

PRAGER: What I found fascinating is that once we're in our 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, each and every decade at the beginning is sort of a slap in the face. But then in the middle of the decade, we're sort of coming to peace with it, and we say, oh, this isn't so bad. And each decade, always in the middle, someone's saying, hey, this is kind of nice; there are some beautiful things here.

So at the age of 55, Dostoyevsky is writing that it is the flowering time of existence when real enjoyment of life begins. And then 65 - Doris Lessing saying, there was nothing to getting old - quite pleasurable really, for if this or that good took itself off, then all kinds of pleasures unsuspected by the young presented themselves. And I think a lot of us also wonder, you know, when have we kind of tipped into another stage? When has that happened? And there's a beautiful...

RAZ: Yeah.

PRAGER: ...Passage about that the age of 49, which is Richard Ford. He's talking about the changes in life. But then he says, maybe the balances tip had already occurred and something about today when he'd later think back from some point further on, today would seem to seem to suggest that then was when things began going wrong or were already wrong or was even when things were at their greatest pinnacle.

Obviously we're only able to see these things in retrospect, but if you really live in the here and now and you're aware of your every step forward, I think you can sort of notice also when those tipping points are happening almost as they happen.

RAZ: Yeah. You know, I mean, we - and we've talked about this. Like, we assume that getting older, like, just by getting older, you know, because we're accumulating more experiences, that we accumulate more wisdom, right?

PRAGER: Yeah.

RAZ: But do you think that's always the case?

PRAGER: I don't. And there's a beautiful quote for the age of 97 all the way towards the end by Percy Seitlin. And the quote is, a man of 97, unless he's a fool, has no message.

RAZ: (Laughter).

PRAGER: So sometimes the more we know, the less we know.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Some wisdom from Joshua Prager. His book is "100 Years: Wisdom From Famous Writers On Every Year Of Your Life." He's got a short talk about it. You can find it at ted.com.

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