Literary quotations for every year of a human life, from birth until death.
Joshua Prager is the editor of our new book 100 Years: Wisdom From Famous Writers on Every Day of Your Life — a project which involved scouting literary quotations from various sources which refer to every year of a human life up to 100. An intimidating and time-consuming task but one which has resulted in a superb anthology of literary voices, including F.Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, Shakespeare, Don Delillo, Martin Amis and Charlotte Brontë. Prager has spoken on TED Talks about his motivation for 100 Years. Here, in the introduction, he discusses what his research revealed to him about the inexhaustible variety of philosophical perspectives on the complicated, tragic and joyful process of growing up — and growing old.
100 Years is also beautifully designed by Milton Glaser who created the I ❤ NY logo and is among the most celebrated graphic designers in the US.
Six years ago, in successive months, I read something Louis Menand wrote about being nineteen, and Don DeLillo wrote about twenty.
“We thought that discovering a new poet or a new poem was the most exciting thing in the world,” Menand wrote in The New Yorker magazine. “When you are nineteen years old, it can be.” Wrote DeLillo in his novel Libra: “At twenty years old, all you know is that you’re twenty. Everything else is a mist that swirls around this fact.”
I was thirty-eight and prone to meditating on age and time; an illness in the family (and later an injury to me) had long made clear that one could not assume that one would grow old.
But books offer vicarious experience. As James Salter wrote: “Life passes into pages if it passes into anything.” And upon reading Menand and DeLillo, a thought leapt to mind: somewhere observations were written of every age. If I could find them, I could assemble them into a long life — and experience it too.
The thought had lingered in me for years when I saw a movie called The Clock. In it, hundreds of snippets from previous films showing clocks were spliced together so that every minute of the day ticked by. The film was magical and propulsive and spoke of time. My list would too, I hoped. And so, I decided to assemble it — passages for every age from zero to one hundred.
I sent a note to bookish friends but got no worthy suggestions back. I had three students browse concordances but had no luck there, either. Emailing author societies and a literary list-serve landed me a few passages but also got me scorned as illiterate. Progress was slow; when I then read novels by Thomas Mann and Leo Tolstoy, I found two passages in 2700 pages.
So I began trolling Google Books and Amazon, searching pages and pages for ages and ages. I was soon seeing authors anew, wondering only if they were apt to reflect upon a specific age. Some, like Evelyn Waugh and Martin Amis, did so often. Some rarely did — it was only in an aside in his forgotten Israel Potter that Herman Melville, my literary hero, made the list. Some never did: Agatha Christie and Upton Sinclair each wrote more than 80 books but not one sentence I found that met my criteria.
Those criteria were simple. A passage had to explicitly state an age and convey something about it.
I was mindful that any such insights were relative. For starters, we now live longer and so age more slowly. (Christopher Isherwood used the phrase “the yellow leaf ” to describe a man of fifty-three one century after Lord Byron used it to describe himself at thirty-six.)
P. G. Wodehouse linked fifty-five to suicide while Fyodor Dostoevsky saw in it real and true enjoyment.
But even so, as the list coalesced, the great sequence of life revealed itself, as distinct as the stages that psychologist Jean Piaget observed of the very young. Here were the wonders and confinements of childhood, the emancipations and frustrations of adolescence, the empowerments and millstones of adulthood, the recognitions and resignations of old age. There were patterns to life. And they were shared. As Mann wrote of human experience: “It will happen to me as to them.”
As such, those who did not make the list were usually in concert with their counterparts who did. Friedrich Von Trapp, independent and self-assured and transported at fourteen by the sound of music, resembled Anne Frank who wrote at fourteen in her diary. The men whom Theodore Dreiser wrote might worry of their “possibly failing vitality” at age fifty-seven would identify with Newland Archer whom Edith Wharton observed at that same age.
Of course, life can swing unpredictably from year to year. Arthur Rimbaud distilled carefree seventeen in the time Charlotte Brontë was first clearing her throat about the gravity of eighteen. And people may experience the same age differently. P. G. Wodehouse linked fifty-five to suicide while Fyodor Dostoevsky saw in it real and true enjoyment. Where Mann wrote of fulfillment at age thirty, F. Scott Fitzgerald saw in it diminishment.
The teens came together as quickly as they pass. The nineties were as difficult to compile as I imagine they are to live.
Other discrepancies owed, perhaps, to gender. Maya Angelou learned surrender at fifteen, the same age of the boy who longed, wrote Günter Grass, “to enter a fray.” And Nora Ephron and Norman Mailer saw in forty-three and forty-four opposing physical truths.
I am now forty-four. And I have a better sense of what awaits. For the list is complete. Thirty (Fitzgerald) was the first in place. Seventy (Nâzım Hikmet) was the last. The teens came together as quickly as they pass. The nineties were as difficult to compile as I imagine they are to live. Four was fallow, thirty-four fertile — William Wordsworth and Henry Thoreau, Ernest Hemingway and Haruki Murakami, all moved to write. The beginnings of decades inspired many pens, so each got an extra passage.
A note — I used quotation marks only when the passage was dialogue. Those few passages containing ellipses were pruned not with their original context in mind but this one, mindful only that they speak to the age in question. I allowed just one passage per writer. And, of course, I only harvested a tiny patch of the written word.
Like life, the list is circuitous. And like the spin of a globe, its compiling sent me into distant lands — from Persepolis to Tara to Oz. Always, I was happily lost, forgetting why I was where I was, remembering only to read.
May you get happily lost too. And, in the words of Hikmet, may “you know that living is the most real, the most beautiful thing.”
New York City
100 Years: Wisdom From Famous Writers on Every Day of Your Life is available from 3rd May on our website.
Published in the UK by W W Norton & Company Ltd.