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Count your life in the books you've read rather than the years you've lived

Blog | By Alice Whaley | Aug 05, 2019


They say my 3-year-old dog is 21 in ‘dog years’. That would make us the same age if ‘human years’ could be measured by the calendar. But it’s not that simple.

Over the weekend, I read Julian Barnes’ s The Sense of an Ending, and lived out a whole lifetime of love and loss alongside protagonist Tony Webster. Book-lovers know well the feeling that comes with finishing a novel. It’s something like release, something like bereavement. You momentarily close your eyes as you close the back cover, saying a mute but sincere goodbye. Having known these characters for years of their paperback lives, you feel as if you’ve known them for years of your own.

The calendar – the most tediously factual of all books – informs you that it’s only been three days. Of course, a great deal of time has passed in ‘book years’. Readers carry the weight of this time with them.

Real-world objects, places and individual words become charged with the meanings given to them over literary lifetimes. Can any of us pick up a giant peach without thinking of James? Othello lurks in every misplaced handkerchief, and, after reading Mrs Dalloway, Big Ben never sounds the same again. Readers’ worlds are layered with memories of other lives, and other lifetimes.

Our way of calculating how many ‘years old’ people are is reductive and, frankly, unhelpful. Accumulating circulations around the sun doesn’t make you wise. Experience and reflection does.

Nothing can beat the real thing, but what is Literature, if not experience and reflection, set down in language? Book-time should be incorporated into your age. I’ve been logging my reading habits, and count 225 novels and plays so far. Some span a lifetime; Ulysses covers only a single day. Call it 10 years for an easy average, and I’ve lived 2,250 years, plus 21 of my own.

How ‘old’ are you, Oldie reader? I’ve got many millennia to live before I’ll achieve anything close to wisdom. But perhaps my age in ‘book years’ explains why this so-called ‘Youngie’ so enjoys The Oldie.