Maybe it’s just the books I’m choosing but it seems to me that there are a lot more books about being old than there used to be. Maybe it’s the last bit of gravitational pull from the BabyBoomers, who are now old and who have always wanted to read about themselves, or maybe it’s just that the world is changing so quickly now that setting issues in the context of a dialogue across generations is a good device for making them relevant.
Anyway, I’m sixty-four and I’m not complaining that there are books around that have old people’s thoughts in them. I have a few of those of my own and I like to have books to bounce them off.
At the moment, I’m reading ‘The Sound Of Distant Engines’, the last book that Robert Dunn published before his death this year. The book is set about three generations from now. The main character in the book is an old man, a former sniper in the US Army, who has lived long enough to feel out of place in the country he fought for. He is a man who can hear his own death coming and he’s trying to make a connection with has a thirteen-year-old grandson before it arrives.
In one of their conversations, the grandson is struggling to understand why you would take risks in your life unless it was for something important like war or space exploration. The old man shows the boy a nickel, a coin so long out of use that he has to explain what is. sitting in the coin tray of his ancient car and offers this thought:
“That’s life. A coin—money—is worth nothing by itself. But when you spend it on something important to you—” The old man handed the nickel over to the boy. “The value is in the spending, the use. Sitting in that tray, safe and sound for fifty years, it was nothing. Sitting there doing nothing, it wasn’t really even mine, it was just there. Understand?”(from “The Sound of Distant Engines” by Robert Dunn)
I wonder, if my grandfather had shared such a thought with me, whether I would have understood or remembered it. But, as someone in the same age range as the grandfather, it seems to me like the kind of wisdom that always arrives decades after it would have been useful.