Author Alice Munro recently created a stir when she announced her retirement from writing, following an example set by novelist Phillip Roth, who declared last autumn that he had also written his last book.
Munro is 82, and Roth is 80, each well past the standard retirement age. Even so, the idea of writers trading their keyboards for gold watches still seems unusual. One of the small benefits of writing, after all, is that one can presumably continue doing it at any age, and many authors keep plugging along, despite the march of years.
John Updike, who was still publishing work until shortly before his death in 2009 at age 76, made the case for keeping at it in one of his last essays, “The Writer in Winter.”
“An aging writer has the not insignificant satisfaction of a shelf of books behind him that, as they wait for their ideal readers to discover them, will outlast him for a while,” Updike told readers. “The pleasures for him, of bookmaking – the first flush of inspiration, the patient months of research and plotting, the laser-printed final draft, the back-and-forthing with Big Apple publishers, the sample pages, the jacket sketches, the proofs, and at last the boxes from the printers, with their sweet heft and smell of binding glue – remain, and retain creation’s giddy bliss.”
But as Munro pointed out in her interview with The New York Times, there’s also a lot to be said for putting down the pen and enjoying life. “There is a nice feeling about being just like everyone else now,” she said.
A few days after Munro’s big splash in The Times, though, author Oliver Sacks published a Times essay about the joys of turning 80. He said he wants to keep working indefinitely. “When my time comes, I hope I can die in harness,” Sacks wrote.
The question of retirement for a writer boils down to personal choice, of course, but all the recent attention on the topic is a potent reminder of the wordsmiths who are still churning out poetry and prose, even in the full bloom of maturity.
Here, as a suggested theme for summer reading, are some recommended titles from five senior writers who are still on the job:
1) Oliver Sacks. Even at four-score years, Sacks routinely makes the bestseller list with his intriguing tales from the world of neurological science, including “Hallucinations,” just out in paperback. (Vintage, $15.95) Sacks proves as good as ever in this nonfiction account of what the eye sees – or thinks it sees – and the author’s reflections on his odd experiences with psychedelic drugs make this perhaps his most personal narrative yet.
2) William Zinsser. The celebrated author of “On Writing Well,” a classic guide to the craft, continues to work as a writing coach at 90, even though the recent loss of his sight forced him to give up his online column for The American Scholar. The essays from that column were recently collected in “The Writer Who Stayed” (Paul Dry Books, 14.95). Also available from Paul Dry’s backlist are two classic Zinsser reprints: “American Places,” his travelogue of national landmarks, and “Mitchell & Ruff,” his account of a pivotal visit to China by American jazz musicians in 1981.
3) Edward Hoagland. Hailed by John Updike as “the best essayist of my generation,” Hoagland is still knitting sentences together at 80, as evidenced by his recent essay collection, “Sex and the River Styx” (Chelsea Green, $17.95). Hoagland’s essays display the emotional complexity of a novel, and they have deepened in emotional resonance as Hoagland has matured. “Summer won’t be endless now; nor episodes of drama and romance,” he writes of aging in “A Last Look,” a landmark essay in the book. In spite of that, Hoagland still finds the winter of his life full of adventure – and insightful observation. “Alaskan Travels” (Arcade Publishing, $22.95), Hoagland’s reminiscence of his travels in the Great White North, is a great companion title.
4) Mary Oliver. Cited by The New York Times as “America’s bestselling poet,” the 77-year-old Oliver crafts poems in the tradition of Robert Frost, offering introspective musings inspired by the New England landscape. “A Thousand Mornings” (Penguin, $24.95) shows Oliver at the top of her form, especially in “Today,” which expresses her views on the serenity of aging: “Today I’m flying low and I’m / not saying a word. / I’m letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.” Penguin plans to publish a collection of Oliver’s canine poems, “Dog Songs,” in October.
5) W.D. Wetherell. Novelist and essayist W.D Wetherell turns 65 this year, but retirement doesn’t seem likely for one of America’s most consistently engaging writers. In “Yellowstone Autumn” (University of Nebraska Press, $24.95), Wetherell recalled coming to terms with aging while spending his 55th birthday in Yellowstone National Park. “The Writing on the Wall” (Arcade, $24.95) his 2012 novel, is an engrossing tale of a woman who seeks solace in an old vacation house, only to discover that she’s not really alone. But my favorite Wetherell book is “On Admiration” (Skyhorse, $12.95), an autobiography improvised from the author’s survey of people he’s admired over the years. “No book like this has ever been attempted before,” he says in introducing his concept. The desire to find something new, even after decades of experience, is what keeps many seasoned authors writing – and seasoned readers following along.