At the age of 58, Penelope Fitzgerald – who had previously worked as a housewife and mother, in a bookstore, and as a teacher – published her first book, a biography of pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones. Two years later, at the age of 60, she published her first novel, "The Golden Child," a book said to have been written to entertain her ailing husband.
Over the next five years she went on to publish five novels, and in 1979 – at the age of 62 – she won the prestigious Booker prize.
Who knows how many retirees have great books lurking within? That seems to be one of the ideas behind the Bookbite project launched by British reading charity Booktrust. The campaign is intended to encourage older people to engage more deeply with books – through reading, joining book clubs, and even writing their own.
Part of the impetus behind the program is the discovery – through a survey done on behalf of Bookbite – that today's Digital Age may have fostered a generation of "silver scribblers." The Bookbite survey of 1,162 readers over the age of 60 found that 55 percent said that the Internet was an important part of their lives and 31 percent were interested in going online to publish short stories and join book clubs.
A few years ago The Wall Street Journal ran an interesting story on the growing number of older people today encouraged – in part by easy access to word processors – to write their memoirs. This morning, the BBC, in reporting on the Bookbite project, cites Frank McCourt (who published first book "Angela's Ashes" at the age of 66) and Marina Lewycka (who was 59 when her debut novel, "A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian," was nominated for the Orange Prize) as examples of successful literary debuts later in life.
Last year, at the age of 63, social worker-turned author Gaynor Arnold also made it to the Orange Prize long list with her first novel, "The Girl in the Blue Dress."
And then of course there's Millard Kaufman. Admittedly, he had had earlier success in life as a screenwriter (much earlier – in the 1950s and '60s), but Kaufman was 86 when he began his first novel, "A Bowl of Cherries," and 90 when it was published to enthusiastic reviews. As Washington Post critic Ron Charles advised the rest of us while reviewing it: "Buck up. Here's a shot of adrenaline for middle-aged hopes."
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.
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