Besides the obvious there is a difference between traveling and staying home. When you travel you seek out the new: foods, people, places, experiences, conversations. When you stay home you bask in the familiar, and the new comes to you almost accidentally. But it’s possible, with age, to rediscover what was once new and enjoy it again no matter where you are.
I was in Yellow Springs, Ohio on a trip with my wife. It was my first time there. It’s a small town where old buildings are made new with young enterprises. Young people mix with old. There’s a small college there. The town is surrounded by beautiful countryside; a state park, the Little Miami river, farms and orchards within easy reach.
My wife was looking for a bookstore and we were drawn to Dark Star Books and Comics on Xenia Avenue. As we do, once inside a bookstore we quickly separated and were absorbed by titles and categories. I went to fiction she went to travel. Both of us were looking for something new.
The fiction section was neatly alphabetized by author. I was soon at H and found Hemingway. There were multiple copies of For Whom the Bell Tolls, a couple of nice softbound, new looking copies of The Sun Also Rises, and only one copy of A Farewell to Arms. But the book that caught my eye was an old but colorful copy of The Old Man and The Sea. I pulled it off the shelf. It was covered in that brittle see- through plastic libraries use to protect books.
Behind the plastic was the original dust cover, boogered up a bit on the front facing corner. The front cover illustration was one third brown land, on which sit five crude shanties, and two thirds blue sea, with three small boats floating near the beach. On the back was a black and white photograph of Ernest Hemingway. It was published in 1952 by Charles Scribner’s Sons. When I turned the narrow edge of the book toward me, opposite the spine, I saw the cut ends of the pages were not smooth but irregular.
The Old Man and The Sea, written the year I was born and published a year later in 1952, won Ernest Hemingway the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953, the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, and then for good measure the Pulitzer Prize again, this time for literature also in 1954. Upon its release, coupled with being featured in Life Magazine, it sold 5 million copies in two days. It caused Hemingway’s entire body of work to be re-examined and secured his place as an internationally renowned author.
I looked at the copyright page, about four pages in, and saw it was a first edition Book of the Month Club selection. Had I been a reader 68 years ago I might have gotten this very book in the mail, opened the package, held it in my hands, and by simply turning the pages and reading the words Hemingway wrote, discovered the fisherman Santiago, the boy who cared for him, the fish he hooked and brought back to his village, and the sea in which a great struggle took place. I bought it on the spot.
We later stayed with friends in Cincinnati whose guest bedroom is in a quiet corner of their basement. There, under the yellow light of a bedside lamp, because books are not backlit as are my Kindle and I Phone, I reread the story I loved so much the first time in 1970.
There’s a debate going on among old people who read (and perhaps think too much). Here it is. No matter how optimistic or healthy seniors are we come to realize there is only so much time left, and only so many more books one can read in that estimated time, assuming reading remains within the skill set of our aging brains. The best approach may be to read whatever you damn well please without regard to the future. But if you feel pressed by time, the question becomes this. Which books should we include in that finite number of books that can be read before we die? All of us have books we wanted to read and never did, and most of us want to read new books to keep current with new thoughts and ideas. But which will it be? If there is any agreement at all, it is that rereading books previously read is probably a waste of precious time.
I might have agreed until I turned to the first page of Hemingway’s famous book, described in the jacket flap verbiage as “a great book like no other…that cannot be classified.” It was pure sweetness to reacquaint myself with the words, the scenes, and the characters which waited for me, stored safely all these years, on those printed pages of The Old Man and The Sea. As I began to read, I remembered a family story connected to the book.
As an English major and a father, I tried to acquaint my kids with literature in an instructive way. My daughter simply found her own way and neither needed, nor welcomed, suggestions. My son was more particular, often asking if books were “made up or real.” At the start rejected fiction pretty much out of hand. I persisted, brought books to him by Gary Paulson and Roald Dahl, and at what I thought was an appropriate time, put this short Hemingway book on his nightstand.
We only had one bathroom back then, downstairs between my kids’ two rooms, and as I was shaving and getting ready for bed, I heard sniffling coming from my son’s bedroom. I went in to see what was wrong. He had his bedside reading light on, The Old Man and The Sea propped open, and tears running down his cheeks.
“What’s the matter?”
“The sharks are going to eat that old man’s fish, and there’s nothing he can do about it.”
To use a fishing metaphor, I knew he was hooked. I also knew he was empathetic, like his parents, and totally captivated, as so many of us have been, with a character created by a skillful writer. Though short, The Old Man and The Sea is a book that creates emotion in its readers, bonds us to its characters, and leaves us with memories we will never (with any luck) forget. It is only 140 pages long. You can read it in an afternoon. If you have read it before, read it again. If you haven’t read it, by all means do.
Here’s why. When I first read The Old man and The Sea, and came to know the main character Santiago, I was nineteen. Not only did I know nothing about the sea, having grown up on a dairy farm in Illinois, I knew nothing about aging, or being an old man in any way. At age nineteen did you imagine your life or your body 48 years into the future? I didn’t. And if by chance I did in some fashion muse in 1970 about what old age might be like it was only in the abstract. Certainly not in any detail. And I never imagined it to feel like this, now, in 2019.
As I read a few weeks ago the struggles of Santiago in his small boat trying to land his fish, how his body let him down, how he might, in his younger days, have done things differently, how much he regretted his circumstances but could do nothing to change them, I appreciated his story, the arc of his life, in a whole new way.
And I value the boy so much more now. Did I overlook the boy’s kindness before? His respect for the old man Santiago and his desire to learn from him? I can’t say. Because just as I could not imagine being old and a father, at age nineteen, neither can I now remember what I was thinking as a college kid first reading the book.
One thing of which I’m certain is how much more I now appreciate Hemingway’s description of the sea. It’s always been a place foreign to me, so I relied almost totally on others to acquaint me with it when I was young. Having been lucky enough to drink up the beauty of the sea at times during my life since, I now have more context for Hemingway’s nautical words and images. I am tempted to give you examples, but I might spoil your reading experience. Suffice to say he paints a vivid and beautiful picture.
I was recently reminded through a good friend’s newspaper column there is something magical about having a book with history in your hands. I agree. Read an old book you loved in any format you wish. And if you loved The Old Man and The Sea as I did, and would like to read a first edition, pretending you are a reader in 1952 who happened upon a great new reading adventure, talk to me about borrowing the old fashioned ink on paper edition I have in the shack. It’s worth your time, no matter how much you think you have left.