I recently heard an NPR interviewer ask an elderly gentleman, “How old are you, sir?” “I’m 82,” the man answered, “but a year and a half ago I was 21.” There it is, the weird way time can compress and the resultant paradox, the fact that our flesh and spirit can inhabit separate seasons, that even as the body dwindles, the heart may flourish. One of my favorite -essays was written by Max Apple. The subject is voice in literature, and Apple offers up three categories that seem obvious but are not: the Voice of Youth, the Voice of Middle Age, and the Voice of Old Age. Give to youth adventure and recklessness. Assign to middle-age security and stability—you’ve built your house and planted your garden, now tend to them. But what does the Voice of Old Age require? The answer is found in the Book of Genesis, on the night that Jacob wrestles with an angel and asks for nothing more or less than a blessing.
Aging indeed seems to shift our quests inward. Maybe you’ve wised up by the time you’re 60, but so what? You still don’t have a clue what everything means. Yet, when you reflect upon your life, you surely want it to add up to this: opportunities seized, the worthy effort, gratitude and beauty and love. In my sixth decade, I have a hunger for surveying the extraordinary lives of extraordinary men and women, reflecting upon their struggles, searching for their blessings.
The Odyssey by Homer.
If Outside had existed back when Homer was writing, Ulysses would have been on the cover more times than Lance Armstrong. Composed in the eighth century B.C., the story of his ten-year journey home from the Trojan War is the model for every adventure story for the next 3,000 years.
Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant
Autobiographies of renowned warriors are customarily enlightening, especially when they’re as candid and literate as this one, written in 1885, as Grant was dying, and published by Mark Twain.
The River of Doubt by Candice Millard
The harrowing chronicle of Roosevelt’s first descent of an unnamed, unmapped Amazon river. Three expedition members died, and Roosevelt contemplated suicide. Researching the book, Millard proved her-self as intrepid as any man on that journey a century ago.
Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell by Janet Wallach
The subtitle alone gets at the incredible story of Bell, who played a central role in the creation of the modern Middle East and was, following World War I, considered the most powerful woman in the British Empire.
The Emerald Mile by Kevin Fedarko
An instant classic that will be read by river rats for centuries to come. Fedarko proves himself a master storyteller with this account of three legendary boatmen's race through the flooded canyon in 1983.