On Aging and Writing a Hard Book

I recently finished a biography of Bertrand Russell, a major 20th century British philosopher who, as his career moved along, shifted heavily toward personal involvement in international political and cultural affairs, most notably arms control and nuclear weapon reduction—but meanwhile, as a kind of relaxation, continuing to turn out a stream of philosophy books. He died at 98, working to the very end in a flurry of international trips, lectures and conferences at a pace exhausting to read about, picking up along the way a Nobel Prize for literature.

Not bad, I thought, a fine role model for those of us who want to finish our lives in the same way, even if not aspiring to win a Nobel Prize. I was particularly interested in how he coped with his aging body and brain in those final years. He was subject to a number of physical ills, some serious, some not, but always present. He spent his very last years in a wheel chair but carried on. His critics often derided him as an old man whose time had come and gone, as one who should leave serious politics to the young. There was some evidence of senility.

 He was helped through all this by a much younger wife, his fourth, and claimed that he did not really understand the attraction of an active sexual life until he was well along in middle age. He energetically made up for those lost years in his later years. He was helped no less by constant popular adulation and awards by elite organizations. He loved it all, never burdened with modesty.  

At 83, I am following in his path although in a less hyperactive way. My wife has made clear that, after 59 years of marriage, I am not going to be allowed another wife. Over the past couple of years I have declined lecture and conference invitations because I find them wearing and not worth the trouble. I stay near home. My main activity is writing, everything from scholarly articles to essays, blogs, and letters to editors. I like to write better than anything else and I am as productive in quantitative terms as I was 30 years ago (I am too modest, or maybe really too fearful, to assess the quality of it all.)

Mainly, however, I am writing a difficult book, far harder to do than I realized when I got started: a comparative study of what I call the five horsemen: global warming, food and water shortages, obesity, and chronic illness, all now identified by the WHO as serious global crises. More than I expected, they all share one common feature: each is getting worse not better despite at least three to four decades of serious attention. Hope is not easy to find with any of them, and I am still searching for it. To rub it in, much of the research is technically difficult, highly specialized, often boringly wonkish, and cascade-like in its output.

 The saving grace of the project is that the topics are important and timely, and in the news almost every day. A writer can’t do much better than that for incentives. One might well ask why I am writing blogs when faced with a more demanding and time-consuming topic. This is how I take recreational breaks.

What I didn’t much take into account was the impact of aging on writing a hard book and how long it might take. As a friend said to me, that sounds like a book it would take 10 years to write. That may well be true but, since mortality is lurking around the corner, I soon realized that I need to write it fast, in no more than two years.

 Other impediments of aging have begun to manifest themselves. The two most obvious are energy levels and memory loss. I consider it a good day if I can write for three or four hours, not the eight-ten of earlier years. That is also true of reading. I could once spend, as a graduate student philosopher, a whole day trying to read a few pages of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Some of the global warming research is just as hard, and I can’t stand it after a few hours.

Memory loss is more serious. I now have 90 books on my topics and about 3,000 articles, and they are increasing by the minute. If you look through them all, you will find my underlining good evidence that I have read them. But if you gave me an oral examination on the contents of most of them, I would likely deny that I had even heard of them in many cases, much less recall their contents. I now often have to read something twice to make it stick. The very nature of a  comparative study is that one has to compare—which involves recalling, say, just where amidst all the research material I have I can find a lost piece of information I need or a nice quote. Was it in the obesity or global warming material? Too often I give up in frustration.

I could go on complaining about all this. I could say something about my serious deficits and freak-outs using the internet, but I will not. Some of that kvetching I am sure my wife would call plain old whining. Yet one way or another I get along, finding ways of compensating for skills used to have.  The real trick is just to stick it out and put up with the aggravations of aging, holding the self-pity to a minimum. My book is now half written. Over a year, an average of one typed page a day will be a 365-page manuscript, a book. Or are there 356 days in a year?  It’s one or the other I’m sure.

Daniel Callahan, 83, is cofounder and President Emeritus of The Hastings Center.





2 responses to “On Aging and Writing a Hard Book”