Seniors have the time for reading and writing, too

December 14, 1997
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

What do seniors like to read? The answer seems to be: The same as everyone else, with perhaps slightly more interest in history and biography.

Many seniors have more time to read and money to buy books or have developed the habit of visiting libraries, so it seems like a lot of seniors are readers.

For instance, a recent talk about books at the Davis Senior Center by teacher and writer Doris Earnshaw attracted a crowd. And the Vacaville Public Library offers two book discussion groups for seniors, both at the library, 1020 Ulatis Drive.

The Book Talk group in Vacaville meets on the fourth Wednesday of the month from 1 to 3 p.m. ; each member talks about the books they are reading or have read during the past month. The next meeting date is Jan. 28.

The Inquiring Minds book group meets on the second Wednesday of the month and each meeting focuses on a particular topic. The next meeting is Jan. 14 from 1 to 2:30 p.m. and the topic is poetry. Each member is asked to bring an example of their most favorite poetry and their least favorite poetry.

"I think seniors respond to writers who write about life's passages," said Dick Brownell, Vacaville reference librarian. He said many members of the book groups enjoyed Wallace Stegner's "Crossing to Safety."

"Generally, it's hard to classify reading interests according to age," he added. "Senior readers are just like other readers except they are older. It might be interesting to compare a list of books read in the past year by seniors to a list of books read by people between 30 and 50; I don't think you would be able to tell which list was read by the seniors. Probably there would be a large overlap of titles on the lists."

At the Davis Senior Center meeting, Earnshaw urged readers to explore different genres. "If you've been a poetry addict all your life, you may want to move into non-fiction," she suggested.

Earnshaw also put together a list of suggested titles, based on recommendations from seniors, many of whom liked writers who tried to make sense of their life and times.

Topping the list is a book by Doris Grumbach, "Coming Into the End Zone." Also another title by the late Wallace Stegner, "The Angle of Repose."

Her informal survey found that seniors liked "anything by Grace Paley," including her collected short stories. "She has the older person's wisdom," said Earnshaw. "(Paley) is a poet, too, and a very great writer who can be funny, too."

Another suggestion was Gore Vidal's "United States."

"His take is intelligent and unusual and his writing is of the best," said Earnshaw.

She also recommended that American readers get to know "the Shakespeare of Japan," a woman writer named Lady Murasaki Shikibu and "The Tale of the Genji."

Earnshaw confessed to a weakness for epic novels and recommended a classic, "Kristin Lavransdatter," by Sigrid Undset. Undset won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1928.

There's a good reason for Earnshaw's interest in promoting the thoughts and opinions of women. She applied to graduate school at UC Berkeley in 1953, at the same time her husband applied.

"We don't take married women," she was told. (Her husband was accepted, however.)

"I didn't have the wit to protest," Earnshaw said. Later, when her children were in school, Earnshaw decided to continue her formal education. She went back to school at age 45, earned her Ph.D. at 55 from UC Berkeley and began her career. She taught comparative literature at UCD from 1988 to 1993 when she retired. But last year, at age 72, taught in the English department at UC Davis for six months.

"I keep being called back to teach interesting courses," she said.

"When I retired from teaching," she added, "I began to publish talks by women." The result has been two collections of speeches by women: "California Women Speak" and "American Women Speak."

"I'm now working on an international book to come out in 1998," she said. And that title will be "International Women Speak." Her books are available at local bookstores.

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