How to soothe a man in the twilight of his life, with literature?
March 8, 2007 5:09 AM   Subscribe

What is a good book to buy for a bright, elderly man who: a.) has probably read everything, and, b.) is experiencing some level of despair due to his rapidly deteriorating body (he has motor neuron disease)?

My partner's father, who I admire deeply, is turning 80 next month, and I'd love to be there to celebrate what could be his last birthday, but unfortunately I can't due to a university commitment. I'd like to send a book down as a gift, because he has such a sharp mind, and has always been a big reader. He is the type of man who would see a book as the best gift you could possibly give.

Being a 24 year old girl, I'm not sure I have read too many books that would appeal to somebody in his position. I'd like the advice of somebody perhaps a bit older or wiser than me, or perhaps a man!

To give you some idea of what he appears to like, I loaned him a book called The Geography of Thought : How Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why, and he ate it up. He loaned me a book called Blooming English, observations on the roots, cultivation and hybrids of the English language. He is Dutch, he loves spoonerisms and wordplay and he is very witty. He has retained his sense of humour even in his old age, except he finds it increasingly difficult to talk due to the MND.

Which brings me to my next point... I fear he may be battling with the "Integrity vs Despair" psychological stage. Last time I saw him, one moment he would be reciting poetry, but then the next he would be apologising for being "a baby"... i.e., needing to be helped out of his chair, unable to enunciate his words as quickly as his thoughts flew.

Does anyone know of any books, perhaps by some philosopher, which would help somebody in his position? I don't mean some kind of self-help book directly related to the topic, but something that would indirectly lift his spirits?

This may be a long shot but I'd appreciate any and all suggestions!

(p.s., This could be relevant -- his spiritual/religious leanings. He was a priest until he was 50 years old, I believe, but then he left the church and now he is an atheist. The way I've been led to interpret it is that joining the church, back in the day, allowed one to be a scholar? That was his main motivation.)
posted by mjao to Writing & Language (30 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
If he is of a more meditative mindset, I might suggest a book of poems by Eugene Guillevic, a Breton poet who melded a beautiful lyrical voice with a fairly rigorous philosophical outlook. Denise Levertov has translated a number of his poems. In particular, I might recommend: Guillevic: Selected Poems

If he belongs to the more Stoic school of thought, I would recommend William Bronk. Bronk's work is meditative, but is less lyrical in its exposition and much more blunt in his exploration of the transitory. Perhaps: Life Supports

Just my two cents...
posted by Chrischris at 5:47 AM on March 8, 2007

If it's reading in particular he likes, a book is a good idea. But if he'd like to keep his mind active in any way possible while not requiring him to be physically dexterous, maybe introduce him to a deep, slow game like Go?
posted by DU at 6:12 AM on March 8, 2007

Perhaps he'd like Bill Bryson's books. Bryson is best known for his hysterically funny travelogues, but he's also written The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way and A Short History of Nearly Everything, which isn't as funny but is virtually true to its title.

Oh, and he's done travelogues of the US by car, the Appalachian Trail by foot, Britain, and Europe. Skip Bill Bryson's Africa, it's forgettable.

Best of luck to the gent.
posted by scratch at 6:25 AM on March 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

He could have already read it and it might not be as escapist as he desires but this book might be appreciated.
posted by skepticallypleased at 6:47 AM on March 8, 2007

Maybe an obvious recommendation, but Oliver Sacks writes with a lot of compassion about people struggling with their sense of their own identity in the face of serious neurological disorders. He's particularly interested in people who can reinvent their ways of seeing the world, to use their disabilities as an advantage instead of a limitation. An Anthropologist on Mars is a good starting point.
posted by fuzz at 6:51 AM on March 8, 2007 [2 favorites]

If I was in his position, I don't know that I'd want to be reminded of my problems in the books that I read. I'd go for lighthearted comedy, personally. Gary Shteyngart's The Russian Debutante's Handbook is recent, well-written, and hilarious.
posted by smorange at 6:54 AM on March 8, 2007

He might enjoy Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. He'll either really love it and how it makes him think new ways about an old world, or he'll hate it and find it dull and flawed (but that could equally challenge him perhaps). I personally loved it, and that's saying a lot because at over 600 pages, that's a lot to love!

This book was required reading for my linguistics/cognitive science class, but it's not a textbook.

Btw, I think it's really tender that you're putting so much thought and consideration into doing something nice for this man.
posted by iamkimiam at 7:17 AM on March 8, 2007

I had a very good friend, thoughtful, and meditative, who, in her 90th year was entranced by The Unbearable Lightness of Being - and went on to read all of Kundera. She also found solace in Rillke's poems.

If he's interested in, but not dogmatic about religions, he might like "Who's Who in the Age of Jesus," by Geza Vermes, which is a recent publication.
posted by clarkstonian at 7:21 AM on March 8, 2007

I would get him the collected fiction and non-fiction works of Borges, if he hasn't already read them. They are very interesting and incidentally Borges went blind so he often touches on themes that your partner's father might resonate with.
posted by milarepa at 7:30 AM on March 8, 2007

How about some Afrikaans literature with side by side Dutch translation? If you can find anything and get it to him in time, that is.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 7:33 AM on March 8, 2007

For wordplay, how about books by Willard R. Espy? A few of his books are still in print.
posted by anitar at 7:57 AM on March 8, 2007

Any book I've read so far from the not so obvious Top 10 choices of the QI editors has been weird, yet extremely rewarding, and simply very well written.
posted by ijsbrand at 8:01 AM on March 8, 2007

Biographies are always good. My elderly relatives have tended to get into biographies late in life, particularly on audiobook.

(P.S. I find the Freudian analysis of the guy a little weird.. it seems a bit weird to psychoanalyze family?)
posted by wackybrit at 8:18 AM on March 8, 2007

He might like The Diving-bell and the Butterfly. Or, he might find it too close to home.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:31 AM on March 8, 2007

Relating specifically to the health issues, check out "Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying" by Ram Dass (Richard Alpert):
posted by mikeand1 at 8:35 AM on March 8, 2007

Maybe some Taoist readings? The "I Ching" and "Tao Te Ching" are great for contemplative reading.
posted by greggrappone at 8:52 AM on March 8, 2007

Response by poster: I'm overwhelmed by so many responses so far, and I hope you'll continue to give me ideas! I'd like to mark them all as best.

I actually felt really touched when I came back to check on the progress of this thread to find that people were willing to lend some thought to this.

Oh, and wackybrit, I can explain! I don't know him very well–although I feel that I know him very well, through countless stories. He lives in another city so we've only met a handful of times. So that might explain why I am removed enough to "psychoanalyse", although I must say I didn't mean to do that; I was just trying to find a way to explain why I feel I need to lift his spirits. And I remembered that Integrity vs Despair thing from last semester in psych :)
posted by mjao at 8:59 AM on March 8, 2007

He'll have surely read them, but Montaigne's Essais are for a large part the record of a great mind facing ageing and death with courage and honesty, and bear constant re-reading.
posted by Abiezer at 9:09 AM on March 8, 2007

The "Master and Commander" series of Aubrey/Maturin novels. Engrossing, byzantine, delightful.
Sure to chase the bluest blues away!
posted by Dizzy at 9:18 AM on March 8, 2007

C.S. Lewis' The Four Loves, or Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' series On Death and Dying (though it might be a little heavy-handed as a gift to one in his situation). I second the Oliver Sacks recommendations. Also The Annotated Alice version of Alice in Wonderland is a wild read full of twist and turns about the logic and language of the book.
posted by cocoagirl at 9:42 AM on March 8, 2007

My first thought was The Diving Bell and the Butterfly as well, with the same caveats.

I'll go ahead and round out the Oliver Sacks recommendations as long as I'm here. A Leg to Stand On is an autobiographical account of Sacks' own time as a patient. I haven't read it yet, but it's waiting on my bookcase.
posted by natabat at 10:02 AM on March 8, 2007

Another vote for Sacks, here; Uncle Tungsten is the richest intellectual autobiography a person could hope to find.
posted by jamjam at 10:25 AM on March 8, 2007

Seconding Rilke, if he hasn't already read him.
posted by punchdrunkhistory at 10:56 AM on March 8, 2007

mjao: Thanks for the explanation. It's always interesting to see people's motivations. It's just I've never seen anyone pulling out psych in personal contexts like that ;-)
posted by wackybrit at 11:01 AM on March 8, 2007

I'd like to second the Bill Bryson suggestion.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:26 AM on March 8, 2007

Check out these two memoirs by Patrick Lee Fermor: A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water.

They offer a bit of everything that it sounds like your partner's grandfather would like: intellect, adventure, history, etc. Plus they truly transport the reader to fascinating times and places that are now long gone.

Amazon description: "At the age of eighteen, Fermor set off from the heart of London on an epic journey—to walk to Constantinople. At once a memoir of coming-of-age, an account of a journey, and a dazzling exposition of the English language, A Time of Gifts is also a portrait of a continent already showing ominous signs of the holocaust to come."

I gave both of them to my 88 year old grandmother and she loved them. In her own words: "I've spent the last three months enjoying travels through central Europe with PLF....One night slept in a cowshed and the next in a country house library of a Baron.....thank you so much for 'introducing' us."

Fermor's books have been out of print for many years. The NYRB just re-published them last year. That said, it's unlikely your partner's grandfather has read them, at least recently.
posted by magnislibris at 12:13 PM on March 8, 2007

A bit off the philosophy path - would he go for graphic novels for a change of pace, like the Sandman chronicles by Neil Gaiman and the Maus books by Art Spiegelman?
posted by lucyleaf at 2:17 PM on March 8, 2007

"tuesdays with morrie" struck a wonderful note with a relative in a similar situation. something like the diving bell and the butterfly, i suppose.

she (the relative) is getting closer to the end than the beginning and was grateful for the subject being raised.

not sure about your father in law though.

second bill bryson if maurie isn't appropriate.

good luck,
posted by taff at 2:41 PM on March 8, 2007

As someone brought up before, I might go with something C.S. Lewis. The Problem of Pain, perhaps, or A Grief Observed. Maybe both, as they are good to read together.
posted by Mookbear at 8:37 PM on March 12, 2007

I guess I should note that The Problem of Pain basically discusses how a "good" God could allow suffering in the world... and A Grief Observed talks about his personal experience of bereavement after his wife passed away.
posted by Mookbear at 8:41 PM on March 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

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