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TEDActive 2015

Joshua Prager: Wisdom from great writers on every year of life

March 19, 2015

As different as we humans are from one another, we all age along the same great sequence, and the shared patterns of our lives pass into the pages of the books we love. In this moving talk, journalist Joshua Prager explores the stages of life through quotations from Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, William Trevor and other great writers, set to visualizations by graphic designer Milton Glaser. "Books tell us who we've been, who we are, who we will be, too," Prager says.

Joshua Prager - Journalist
Joshua Prager’s journalism unravels historical secrets -- and his own. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I'm turning 44 next month,
00:12
and I have the sense that 44
is going to be a very good year,
00:15
a year of fulfillment, realization.
00:19
I have that sense,
00:23
not because of anything
particular in store for me,
00:24
but because I read it would be a good year
00:27
in a 1968 book by Norman Mailer.
00:30
"He felt his own age, forty-four ..."
00:34
wrote Mailer in "The Armies of the Night,"
00:37
"... felt as if he were a solid embodiment
00:40
of bone, muscle, heart, mind,
and sentiment to be a man,
00:42
as if he had arrived."
00:46
Yes, I know Mailer
wasn't writing about me.
00:49
But I also know that he was;
00:52
for all of us -- you, me,
the subject of his book,
00:54
age more or less in step,
00:58
proceed from birth
along the same great sequence:
01:00
through the wonders
and confinements of childhood;
01:05
the emancipations
and frustrations of adolescence;
01:08
the empowerments
and millstones of adulthood;
01:12
the recognitions
and resignations of old age.
01:16
There are patterns to life,
01:20
and they are shared.
01:22
As Thomas Mann wrote:
"It will happen to me as to them."
01:24
We don't simply live these patterns.
01:29
We record them, too.
01:31
We write them down in books,
where they become narratives
01:33
that we can then read and recognize.
01:36
Books tell us who we've been,
01:39
who we are, who we will be, too.
01:41
So they have for millennia.
01:45
As James Salter wrote,
01:47
"Life passes into pages
if it passes into anything."
01:49
And so six years ago,
a thought leapt to mind:
01:54
if life passed into pages,
there were, somewhere,
01:58
passages written about every age.
02:02
If I could find them, I could
assemble them into a narrative.
02:04
I could assemble them into a life,
02:08
a long life, a hundred-year life,
02:10
the entirety of that same great sequence
02:12
through which the luckiest among us pass.
02:15
I was then 37 years old,
02:19
"an age of discretion,"
wrote William Trevor.
02:22
I was prone to meditating on time and age.
02:26
An illness in the family
and later an injury to me
02:30
had long made clear that growing old
could not be assumed.
02:33
And besides, growing old
only postponed the inevitable,
02:36
time seeing through
what circumstance did not.
02:40
It was all a bit disheartening.
02:43
A list, though, would last.
02:46
To chronicle a life
year by vulnerable year
02:49
would be to clasp and to ground
what was fleeting,
02:52
would be to provide myself and others
a glimpse into the future,
02:55
whether we made it there or not.
02:58
And when I then began to compile my list,
I was quickly obsessed,
03:01
searching pages and pages
for ages and ages.
03:05
Here we were at every annual step
through our first hundred years.
03:09
"Twenty-seven ... a time
of sudden revelations,"
03:14
"sixty-two, ... of subtle diminishments."
03:18
I was mindful, of course,
that such insights were relative.
03:23
For starters, we now live longer,
and so age more slowly.
03:28
Christopher Isherwood used
the phrase "the yellow leaf"
03:32
to describe a man at 53,
03:36
only one century after Lord Byron
used it to describe himself at 36.
03:38
(Laughter)
03:42
I was mindful, too, that life
can swing wildly and unpredictably
03:44
from one year to the next,
03:48
and that people may experience
the same age differently.
03:50
But even so, as the list coalesced,
03:53
so, too, on the page, clear
as the reflection in the mirror,
03:57
did the life that I had been living:
04:00
finding at 20 that "... one is less
and less sure of who one is;"
04:03
emerging at 30 from the "... wasteland
of preparation into active life;"
04:07
learning at 40 "... to close softly
the doors to rooms
04:12
[I would] not be coming back to."
04:17
There I was.
04:20
Of course, there we all are.
04:23
Milton Glaser, the great graphic designer
04:26
whose beautiful
visualizations you see here,
04:29
and who today is 85 --
04:32
all those years "... a ripening
and an apotheosis," wrote Nabokov --
04:34
noted to me that, like art and like color,
04:39
literature helps us to remember
what we've experienced.
04:43
And indeed, when I shared
the list with my grandfather,
04:46
he nodded in recognition.
04:50
He was then 95 and soon to die,
04:53
which, wrote Roberto Bolaño,
04:57
"... is the same as never dying."
04:59
And looking back, he said to me that, yes,
05:03
Proust was right that at 22,
we are sure we will not die,
05:07
just as a thanatologist
named Edwin Shneidman was right
05:13
that at 90, we are sure we will.
05:16
It had happened to him,
05:21
as to them.
05:23
Now the list is done:
05:27
a hundred years.
05:29
And looking back over it,
05:33
I know that I am not done.
05:36
I still have my life to live,
05:38
still have many more pages to pass into.
05:40
And mindful of Mailer,
05:44
I await 44.
05:46
Thank you.
05:48
(Applause)
05:49

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Joshua Prager - Journalist
Joshua Prager’s journalism unravels historical secrets -- and his own.

Why you should listen

Joshua Prager writes for publications including Vanity Fair, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, where he was a senior writer for eight years. George Will has described his work as "exemplary journalistic sleuthing."

His new book, 100 Years, is a list of literary quotations on every age from birth to one hundred. Designed by Milton Glaser, the legendary graphic designer who created the I ♥ NY logo, the book moves year by year through the words of our most beloved authors, revealing the great sequence of life.

His first book, The Echoing Green, was a Washington Post Best Book of the Year. The New York Times Book Review called it “a revelation and a page turner, a group character study unequaled in baseball writing since Roger Kahn’s Boys of Summer some three decades ago.”

His second book, Half-Life, describes his recovery from a bus crash that broke his neck. Dr. Jerome Groopman, staff writer at the New Yorker magazine, called it “an extraordinary memoir, told with nuance and brimming with wisdom.

Joshua was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 2011 and a Fulbright Distinguished Chair at Hebrew University in 2012. He was born in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, grew up in New Jersey, and lives in New York. He is writing a book about Roe v. Wade.

 

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