Readers Write

What Are Octogenarians and Nonagenarians Reading?

by Karen Pavlicin-Fragnito

In this month’s Readers Write column, we set out to discover what book reading is like for seniors as they near their 80s or 90s. How have their lives been influenced by reading? How do they choose what to read next? Here’s what some of the older and wiser readers in our lives shared about what’s on their reading lists.

Bob Lessard, 82, was a Minnesota state senator for 26 years. He twice successfully championed amendments to the Minnesota state constitution, chaired the Environment and Natural Resources Committee for many years, and now serves as a community outreach liaison for the DNR. Widely known by leaders in all political parties, Bob attributes much of his success to his love of reading about history and politics.

“My history of reading history has no doubt affected my decision-making process,” he says.

Reflecting on how books have influenced him over the years, Bob says, from the beginning, his interest in history and politics, and reading about free enterprise, has influenced his thought process. “All the things I’ve studied have shaped my thinking, influenced me becoming a state senator. It has affected my whole political career.”

Bob says, “I like to read about past conflicts, why and how we got into it, and relating that to my own experience in Korea. I’m a nut for that sort of reading.”

He also enjoys reading about the Constitution, “what they meant when they wrote it, and how it is interpreted today. Some say it’s an evolving document. I say it’s not,” he says. “I enjoy reading about how politics have changed.”

Each day, Bob reads the opinion columns of newspapers around the country, to see the different ideas people have. “Thanks to the Internet, I can zero in on news and opinions across the country every day. My iPad is one big newspaper, one big book.”

Bob says he does enjoy a good mystery once in a while, noting that he’s read all the Sherlock Holmes books. But history is his true passion.

“Some people like to read Rolling Stone. Some people read gossip columns. Some like sports. I might look at all those once in a while, but religiously, every day, I look at history, how we make history.”

Other readers add their thoughts:

Mary, 88, says, “I have been using a Kindle for several years, but recently, my eyes get so tired, I hardly ever feel like reading. When my eyes water the whole time, it takes the joy out of reading. I tried audio books a couple years ago, but they put me to sleep.”

Not having an easy way to read has been a difficult transition. She says, “From the time I was a little girl, I treasured my library card.”

Mary and her husband began their family while WWII was still going on. She remembers, “One of the books that made a difference in my life was a book on how to take care of babies. I had never held a baby before I had my own. I had never been around babies. It was all totally brand new.”

Alma, 72, writes: “I can’t remember ever having a list of books I wanted to read. I usually read anything that is available. Since I read six or seven books a month, I look for an author who has a lot of books on the library shelf. I take out one, and if I like it, I read the whole series. I also get ideas from the newspaper, Readers Digest, and Good Housekeeping. My favorite authors are Nicholas Sparks, Catherine Anderson, Jodi Picoult, Kristin Hannah, and Dorothy Garlock.

“If they have a new release, I bug the library until they get it. For lighter reading, I read Sherryl Woods, Mary Higgins Clark, Nora Roberts. I also like books like The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and And The Mountains Echoed, as well as Chris Bahjalian books. These books make you realize how great it is to live in America. It is amazing how awful women and girls are treated by the Taliban.”

She adds, “Most of my friends don’t read unless I tell them the book is great.”

Jane, 72, writes: “I still have a long list of books I want to read, as I did when I was 30. There are books I have toted around the country with me for years intending to read, but I keep getting drawn in by the newer ones. Now that I’m retired, I do have a lot more time for reading but also more time for other things. I currently belong to five book clubs, so many of the books I read are dictated by those. I have read 112 books so far this year (according to my Goodreads account). Some of those were due to a course I took through Coursera. It doesn’t count the ones I started but wasn’t interested in. I am rereading all the Man Booker Prize Winners in order. My octogenarian friends are reading some of the same things I am. For instance, I have recently read the newest novels by Grisham, Elizabeth Gilbert, Amy Tan, but also reread Rebecca for a book club. In nonfiction, I read a book by Caroline Moorehead, The President’s Club by Nancy Gibbs, and This is Your Brain on Music.”

Rosemary, 84, shares her list of books she plans to read: The Light Between the Oceans, Olive Kitteridge, The Witch’s Daughter (all recommended by someone she knows). Books that have made a difference in her life include: And The Mountains Echoed, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter (very good, she says). The most recent book she and her friends have talked about: Heaven is For Real.

Harold, 96, shares: “My granddaughter lives nearby. She is a teacher and keeps up with what the good stories are. I’ve tried the large print, but you know, your body fails sometimes even with big print. So she reads to ‘us’—for her and me—books we both find interesting. At my age, my friends have died or moved or can’t get out much. I’m really happy to have this time with Sue and to be able to keep ‘reading’ good books.”

Chris, 81, says: “I always keep two or three books nearby that I want to read. I don’t want God to think I’m done with my list here yet!”

Photo: When Dorothy Stiles was 98, she chose to read Perch, Mrs. Sackets, and Crow’s Nest, because one of the main characters, Mrs. Sackets, was based on her life.

There are all sorts of reasons we choose the books we want to read. What’s on your reading list? What do you think your list will look like when you are 80 or 90?

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