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Book Review: Lastingness: The Art of Old Age by Nicholas Delbanco

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In Lastingness: The Art of Old Age, Nicholas Delbanco takes us inside the lives of geniuses in the world of art, literature, and music to learn what happens to artists who endure. Why is someone creative until age 30, and then never again? How do some artists continue to expand their talent, energy, enthusiasm, and skill through many decades past middle-age? In his thoughtful analysis, Delbanco lets us explore the life-long habits that kept people such as Haydn, Monet, Picasso, Pablo Casals, and Georgia O’Keeffe productive and relevant into old age.

And, to remind us the second half of existence needn’t be a period of decline, Delbanco quotes C.J. Jung: “But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning: for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.”

While we cannot know why some artists stop creating or die young while others keep working, the journey through the lives of those who endure shows us the astonishing work some people can produce late in life. And that “the age of an artist while working is finally less important than the number of years left for work.”

We can only speculate as to what would be different if fate had been kinder to those who did not last… If Beethoven had a hearing aid, or if Virginia Woolf was on antidepressants, they might not have managed to produce their great wrenching and pain-suffused work.

While the book’s subjects are more male than female, Delbanco reasons that in part “anonymity has shrouded the creative achievements of women, and for many, “their talents were undervalued or their labor blocked.”

Enjoy Lastingness for what it offers: both a studied look at the issues of aging and creativity, as well as a delightful way to brush up on history, recalling the works of nonagenarians and octogenarians who were amazing artists, still appreciated today.

Throughout Lastingness, the author considers the raw concepts of aging, with physical and mental failings, and asks why the creative impulse, so readily available in the young, is censored in the old. Since there are no rules regarding life span, Delbanco says we need not live forever to live longer, and there’s no obvious reason why the “sunset years” must mean a reduction of light. As he proves, it can be a time of unabated desire, unflagging expressive ambition, and energy.

The author of over 25 books, Delbanco is a man of letters. Growing closer to the age of his subjects, he proves to be their equal. His vibrant prose, reasoned and energetic art as a writer may be far from its peak. He is a University of Michigan Professor of English, received a Guggenheim Fellowship and, twice, a National Endowment for the Arts Writing Fellowship.

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