The Books Briefing: On Growing Old and Growing Up

Not the same old stories: Your weekly guide to the best in books

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For some people, including poets such as Louise Glück and Gerard Manley Hopkins, fall is a symbol of lost youth. The season’s gradually shortening days can feel like a reminder of mortality, or prompt worries that one’s most vigorous and productive years may already be coming to an end.

Even so, the autumn of life is a fertile topic for writers to explore the pangs and benefits of getting older. The eponymous hero of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is left at the end of the book with little more than a memory—yet that memory, says the novelist Téa Obreht, is enough to encapsulate who he is. As Akiko Busch argues in a recent book of essays, the title character in Mrs. Dalloway demonstrates how a person can draw power from the seeming invisibility of age. New works of nonfiction by Darcey Steinke, Susan Mattern, and Gail Collins reflect on the cultural meaning of menopause, and point to the unexpected opportunities it can create for women.

Jane Austen’s first published novel, thought to have been drafted when the author was only a teenager, shows one young character’s eyes being opened to the possibilities of life after what she sees as the advanced age of 35. And a book club among four male friends who have known one another for decades gives them space for personal growth and emotional support that many older men don’t get.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.

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What We’re Reading

The secret power of menopause
“Even now it’s hard for a woman not to dread the consequences of moving out of youth … [But] three new books about postmenopausal womanhood show that the conversation is changing.”

📚 Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life, by Darcey Steinke
📚 The Slow Moon Climbs: The Science, History, and Meaning of Menopause, by Susan Mattern
📚 No Stopping Us Now: The Adventures of Older Women in American History, by Gail Collins

An existential reading list for middle-aged men
“Some of these discussions have actually changed the way we live.”

📚 Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande
📚 Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry
📚 Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, by James Fowler

The Hemingway scene that shows how humanity works
“By ending on that image, Hemingway suggests that what matters most is the preservation of a person’s sense of self—which only that person can know in life, and which a reader can know through the intimacy of fiction.”

📚 The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway
📚 Inland, by Téa Obreht

The invisibility of older women
“One’s identity, [Virginia] Woolf seems to say, is transient, and perhaps all the more so with age. As women become older, they entertain a wider set of choices about when and how they are seen.”

📚 An excerpt from How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency, by Akiko Busch
📚 Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf
📚 Now You See Her, by Whitney Otto
📚 “The Third Age,” by Francine du Plessix Gray

“On the wrong side of five-and-thirty”: how Jane Austen grew up
“Marianne spends much of [Sense and Sensibility] believing that the lives of the older people around her are frozen in place, their circumstances set sometime in their youth … But the events of the book disabuse Marianne of this way of thinking.”

📚 Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen

The Reference Desk

(New York Public Library)

This week’s question comes from Craig: “Any good book suggestions on bioethics?”

Some of the most thought-provoking portrayals of bioethical debates I’ve read have come from dystopian novels. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go imagines a population of human clones whose organs are harvested for transplant, and Rachel Heng’s Suicide Club reflects on what humans might lose if 300-year life spans become possible (and enforceable by the state).

Such questions are by no means limited to fiction, though. In The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America, the bioethicist Jonathan D. Moreno discusses the impact that developments in neuroscience and globalization have had on his field, and how once-academic issues such as stem-cell research have become deeply intertwined with politics. Indeed, as medicine advances into legal gray areas, there’s a good chance that bioethics questions will eventually come before the Supreme Court—and if they do, Justice Neil Gorsuch’s 2006 book, The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia, will be well worth a read.

Write to the Books Briefing team at or reply directly to this email with any of your reading-related dilemmas. We might feature one of your questions in a future edition of the Books Briefing and offer a few books or related Atlantic pieces that might help you out.

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Rosa Inocencio Smith. She’s looking forward to conversations with friends about Conversations With Friends.

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