3 Books to Make You Feel Better About Your Place in Life

My significant other has been learning Fleetwood Mac’s beautiful 1975 ballad ‘Landslide.’ In the song, Stevie Nicks sings, “Even children get older / I’m getting older too.” This month I turned 29 — well under the U.S. median age of 37, and yet I feel like Nicks does. “I’m getting older too.”

How old you feel is relative. We compare ourselves to the lofty achievements of our peers, or the success stories of young celebrities. As we look at our paltry achievements, we ask how we got off track. Shouldn’t we be more accomplished? Shouldn’t we know more about life? Shouldn’t we feel secure, like we assumed our parents felt when we were kids?

I propose a source of relief for these aging concerns: reading.

Last year during an existential crisis I turned to reading memoirs and biographies. My question was, “how do other people live?” The answer I found from reading was: “They play it by ear.” Memoirs and bios remind us that everyone’s life is a big messy guess. Things don’t always go according to plan — for worse and for better.

Below I list three books that remind us of the uniqueness of life. Each shows that life is always new, always surprising, and never conforms to our ideas about it. I’ll provide a short description of each book and how they help shift our perspective on our own lives.

  1. A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen by Liel Leibovitz (2014)

The great poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen, who died late last year, lived a remarkable, dynamic life. Cohen began his career as a novelist, traveling and writing through his ’20s, before declaring his plan to move to New York to become the next Bob Dylan. He was in his early thirties and had never written music. And yet, in his own morose, beautiful way, he did exactly what he set out to do.

As a professional songwriter, Cohen’s life got more complicated. He overcame crippling shyness with the help of wine. He toured with his band — known as ‘the Army’ — witnessing and participating in the social unrest of the ’70s. He did acid hundreds of times. He performed at a mental health hospital and announced, “I’ve never felt so good playing before people.”

In the mid ’70s, Cohen worked with legendary producer and convicted murderer Phil Spector. Author Liel Leibovitz recounts a drunken Spector shuffling up to Cohen, a bottle of wine in one hand, a gun in the other.

He put his arm around Cohen’s shoulder and shoved the revolver into the singer’s neck. “Leonard,” he said, “I love you.” Not missing a beat, Cohen replied, “I hope you do, Phil.”

After some early success (‘Suzanne’ was covered by many artists in the late ‘60s) Cohen’s commercial appeal waned. His record label Columbia turned down his 1984 album Various Positions. It’s fifth song was ‘Hallelujah.’

Cohen moved to a Zen monastery in 1994, where he might’ve remained if not for an embezzlement scheme by his manager that left him broke. Cohen returned to songwriting, releasing albums, and touring. This time he didn’t need the wine. Critic Robert Christgau called Cohen “the 78-year-old 68-year-olds hope to become.”

Could anyone have predicted this career path? Did Cohen know that his greatest hit ‘Hallelujah’ would come at the age of 57, seven years after he released it? The answer is no. Love, ambition, money, spirituality, and cultural forces converged in an amazing jumble.

We can learn from Cohen’s dry humor, his resilience, and his self-deprecating brilliance. But the larger point is Cohen’s unorthodox journey. If we think we know exactly where life is taking us, Leibovitz’s book says otherwise.

2. Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan (2016)

I didn’t think I’d like William Finnegan’s Pulitzer prize winning Barbarian Days. A memoir of surfing? Why would I care about surfing? Growing up in New Mexico, I rarely ate seafood before moving out East, let alone experienced waves. To me, the ocean is one big, terrifying mystery.

For Finnegan, a journalist, the allure is the same: the ocean is so huge, you can never understand it. And yet this is exactly what surfers try to do. They tie themselves to a big piece a plastic, paddle out, and submit to the power of universal forces. All for a few moments of bliss. I’m not a surfer, but I get that impulse.

Barbarian Days is about obsession. A sentence on page 96 sums it up:

Chasing waves in a dedicated way was both profoundly egocentric and selfless, dynamic and ascetic, radical in its rejection of the values of duty and conventional achievement.

Our obsessions demand much of us, and yet somehow liberate us too.

How can Barbarian Days make you feel better about aging? Because Finnegan shows us that we can balance our lives. He’s a person of the world. He has a full life of family commitments, career aspirations, and personal successes and failures. At the same time Finnegan is a surfing recluse, always searching for the next wave. His passion for surfing threads his entire life, but never takes over.

For me, this offers a possibility in my life. I can integrate spiritual pursuits, which sometimes feel so pointless and egocentric, with earthly ones. I can be both eccentric monk and practical materialist. Finnegan demonstrates this balance. That’s the way he is: surfer/writer. We too can pursue our transcendent dreams and accomplish things in the world.

3. Blue Nights by Joan Didion (2011)

Blue Nights isn’t what you’d call a ‘light read.’ It’s not the kind of memoir you’d expect on a list of helpful books about aging, either. Like Barbarian Days, it features someone facing an unimaginable mystery: death.

Journalist Joan Didion lost her husband to a heart attack in 2003 — a subject she writes about in The Year of Magical Thinking (2005). Only two years later, Didion’s daughter died of pancreatitis at the age of 39. Blue Nights is a ruminating, painful memoir of her daughter’s death and the years of grief that followed.

Author David Foster Wallace said that nonfiction offers the chance to “watch somebody reasonably bright but also reasonably average pay far closer attention and think at far more length about all sorts of different stuff than most of us have a chance to in our daily lives.” (Thanks to Austin Kleon’s book Show Your Work! for this reference.) In Blue Nights, Didion pours over the worst parts of life with a fine-tooth comb: death, regret, guilt, and fear. She gives us a glimpse of our worst nightmares, asking questions that lead to more questions.

She writes on page 54:

When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.

In an NPR interview from 2011, Didion recalled, “We all survive more than we think we can… We imagine things — that we wouldn’t be able to survive, but in fact, we do survive. … We have no choice, so we do it.”

Why would we want to put ourselves through this sorrow? Who wants to think about death when it’s not knocking at our door?

Death can teach us about life. We should contemplate the bad parts of life, the terrible possibilities, the unthinkable tragedies — these things sometimes happen. They are no less tragic when we look at them. But they are a part of the mystery of life. To avert our eyes would be to deny something important about who we are.

We naturally focus on positive experiences. No one wants to live a life of fear and dread. But in the never-ending quest for balance sometimes it’s helpful to consider the negatives, no matter how heartbreaking. We’ll become more tolerant of ourselves and others if we look at the bigger picture. Life isn’t all tragic, nor is it all comic — it’s both.

A Whole Life

These three books offer lessons about how to live a whole life. From them we learn that life is absurd, devastating, hilarious, and thrilling beyond our imaginations.

Comparisons fall away when we see how each person’s path is different. We all encounter the same themes, but the story is new for each of us. Let us take the example and follow our life wherever it may lead.

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