What Would Retired People Read?

BeatlesYesterday was the 50th Anniversary of the Beatles first appearance on American television: the Ed Sullivan Show to be specific. Now, we had actually seen the Beatles earlier on the Steve Allen Show but the difference was on Sullivan they performed live. You remember that night, right; all those screaming girls and four mods from Liverpool with floppy hair and strange costumes set to change the face of American pop music for many years? A few weeks ago Bill Maher was talking with Jay-Z about the Beatles appearance on Sullivan and he paused to ask if Jay-Z remembered Ed Sullivan … the answer was a firm and definite “No.”

Add to that the apocryphal anecdote that someone’s daughter had heard rumors that Paul McCartny had been in another band before Wings and you might feel older than the Tennessee Waltz.

But if you’re up their in years you probably have heard of AARP (you might even be a member). I have a friend that received her initial invitation to join AARP and tore up the paper screaming that she was too young to be in AARP (like KFC which changed their official name to hide that word “fried,” AARP originally was known as the American Association of Retired Persons). But if you are familiar with AARP you still might not know that there is an AARP Bookstore where you can corral all those useful titles like Dentures For Dummies or Motorized Walkers Weekly.

AARP has even published a recommended reading list and although it’s not bad (a little knee-jerk, perhaps, and definitely slanted to American authors), it begs the question: Why are these novels being selected for an older demographic? Perhaps you have other ideas for this list, either alternates or additions. Note that I published this list last year but I include it here to try to understand what makes a good book for a senior to read … is it generational? Being a senior myself, I’ll mark the titles I have already read in blue and I guess we can also ask why I haven’t read many of these books?

21 Great Novels It’s Worth Finding Time to Read

by Jacquelyn Mitchard, AARP, May 2012

1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Did you go to high school? If so, you’ve been programmed to believe that this is a good book. The thing is, it is a good book, about justice and deeply held beliefs, right and wrong, and the agony of growing up.

2. True Grit by Charles Portis

I was once listing my favorite novels with the then book-editor for Newsweek, and I mentioned the then-obscure-except-for-the-John-Wayne-movie story of Mattie Ross and her quest for justice with the rascally sheriff Rooster Cogburn. The editor said, “Well, we’re talking favorites. Now, you’re talking genius.”

3. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Lest you think that all my top faves are coming-of-age novels set among children challenged by painful realities — like Francie Nolan in this novel of immigrant poverty in prewar New York — oh well. Deal with it.

4. Andersonville by MacKinlay Kantor

If you haven’t read this novel of the Confederate prison camp in Georgia, and the prisoners who fought to survive there, I envy you. You have a treat in store for yourself.

5. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

This supposed debut of the hard-boiled detective novel makes the list because of the line that the statue was “the stuff dreams are made of.” The guy could write.

6. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurty

Two strangely literate Texas rangers who decide to become cattle ranchers, and out-Sundance Butch and the Kid, is the book that made me decide to write a novel.

7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

“Last night, I dreamed I went to Manderley again.” You will love this story of psychological obsession and immortality by one of the most underrated writers of the 20th century.

8. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams

This wonderful sequel to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy asks a poignant question. Facing the end of life as we know it, is it too much to ask to find a good cup of tea and some biscuits?

9. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Sixty-five million other readers worldwide adore the story of the Andalusian shepherd boy, Santiago, who goes searching for a treasure under the scornful aegis of a sorceress. I’m not going to disagree with them.

10. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Nathaniel Hawthorne hated the Misses Bronte, because they could do what he could not — write books that sing with authenticity and genuine suspense, and do so nearly 200 years later.

11. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

It’s the story of one woman’s doomed love and one civilization’s doomed quest, and it’s just a helluva story, period.

12. The Magus by John Fowles

Even people who have read and loved The French Lieutenant’s Woman may not know about this crazy part romance, part horror, part Gothic book, in which nothing and no one is what it seems.

13. in our time by Ernest Hemingway

The lower case name is the correct, if affected, author’s choice of title for the first big published book of Ernest Hemingway’s heartbreaking stories. When you read this, you see just why his style was so imitated, and why it never could be copied. Ever.

14. Different Seasons by Stephen King

Speaking of great short-story stylists, this is my living favorite. While I don’t run to buy every new Stephen King novel, I would fight anyone who thinks that “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” and “The Body” don’t compare favorably to just about anything.

15. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Often cited as sporting the best first paragraph in all prose, this story is still as paralyzingly scary as it was the day it was written.

16. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

My mother said that this novel of prewar Russia and the foolish and beautiful Anna was a story that “took all the fun out of adultery.” So true.

17. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris

Having read this book before the amazing characterization of Hannibal Lecter by Anthony Hopkins, I was the only person on earth who thought that this prequel to The Silence of the Lambs was even more gruesome and terrifying.

18. The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

Another Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the Civil War? Yes! This is the story of the longest days of our nation’s lives, three hot sunsets in Gettysburg, and why even the beautiful and brave can be wrong, and the glum, stubborn and foolish as right as dawn.

19. Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

The story of two couples growing “up” together is as true a story about loyalty and its limits as any I’ve ever read.

20. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Often described as the chronicle of the so-called Jazz Age, this is really a story about the haves and how they think of the have-nots, because they are helpless to think of them any other way. You might call it a 1920s tale of the 1 percent.

21. Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White

Those who think of this small book about a gallant spider’s fight to save the life of a runt pig as a children’s story are letting children have all the fun.

Isn’t retirement when people have the time to read books like Finnegans Wake or Á la recherché du temps perdu?

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