Charles McGrath writes, “Who isn’t a critic? We are born picky and judgmental, and as we get older we only become more opinionated and more sure of ourselves.” Is that true? I think I’m less sure of myself now than I ever have been.

Or maybe that’s not quite right. My tastes are perhaps more limited, even fixed, than they once were — I am more likely to say, of a book or a movie or a record that people are praising, “Maybe it’s as good as they say, but I pass” — and, moreover, to feel comfortable with that decision and untempted to revisit it. But I’m not inclined to think that my tastes have become increasingly precise, ever more sophisticated; rather, I’m simply aware of the passage of time, the shrinking of the years in front of me, and am less prone to devotes lots of time and energy to things that (experience teaches me) I am not likely to find rewarding.

Might I miss some cool stuff? Indeed. And not just “might” but “will.” But here’s the thing about being fifty-six: I know I’ve missed lots of cool stuff. And I’m still here, and not obviously worse off for it. That makes it easier to go with my gut — to grab what looks good and to ignore what doesn’t — but not because I’m smarter than I used to be or more discerning. It’s just a matter of reckoning with the brevity of life. All in all, I’d rather read Jane Austen again.

That said, the next book on my list is the first book of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy. So I’m not only re-reading the faves.


  1. I'm still pretty young, but I find myself on a similar trajectory–in that I'm not more confident in my opinions (someone once observed that the phrase "best book ever" could only be uttered by an undergrad or younger), but that I'm also less willing and able to expend energy on books that are initially uninteresting or unrewarding.

    A year ago, for instance, I started Franzen's 'The Corrections.' I found the protagonist both boring and distasteful. A couple of years earlier, though, the book's literary reputation would have been enough for me to slog through it in the hopes that my efforts would be rewarded later on (as has been indeed the case so often in books I didn't initially care for but persisted in reading). But I just wasn't willing to give it more than a hundred pages.

    And given the demands on my time these days, I don't see that trend reversing itself anytime soon.

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