Retirement offers up opportunities to engage in any number of different activities that you never had time for when you were working. Many retirees travel extensively, pursue further education, start new businesses, do volunteer work, take up new hobbies; for many, playing golf four times a week is a perfect way to keep busy.
Or perhaps you just want to kick back and read a good book. Busy professionals often don’t have enough time for serious reading — or have time only to read work-related literature.
But now that you’re retired, you can draw up a good list of books and get started. A serious reading program can be an education in itself. St. John’s College (with campuses in Annapolis and Santa Fe) is famous for its Great Books Program, a four-year undergraduate curriculum that grants a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts. Students learn by reading the greatest works of literature, philosophy, science, sociology, history, and other topics that humankind has pursued over the past two and a half millennia. Freshman year covers Greek and Roman classics; sophomore year includes early religious works as well as medieval European philosophy and literature; juniors read a great deal of philosophy as well as early American political writing; and seniors continue with more contemporary texts. Simply following St. John’s program would provide you with an excellent and fulfilling education in the Western tradition. (The school offers a graduate program in Asian traditions.)
Tolstoy’s War and Peace
There are many other books that could find their way onto your reading list. A good place to start might be Tolstoy’s War and Peace, one of the greatest works of Russian literature. This sprawling novel, published in 1869, is a historical novel — describing the very real events of the Napoleonic invasion of Russia through the experiences of fictional characters, mainly drawn from the Russian aristocracy. Tolstoy’s writing is cinematic in scope, providing wide shots as well as close-ups; his novel is an early example of literary realism. Also, it’s a page-turner; if you like soap operas, you’ll enjoy War and Peace. A recent translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky has earned high praise from reviewers.
Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate
A good follow-up might be Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, another historical novel written a hundred years later covering the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Grossman was a war correspondent and was on location during the battle of Stalingrad and other key battles; his novel, however, was as critical of the Soviet regime as it was of the invading Nazis, and never saw publication in the Soviet Union. Robert Chandler’s translation is readily available.
Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past
Turning to French literature, Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past is near the top of many people’s lists. This seven-volume, first-person narrative about growing up, participating in society, falling in love, and learning about art is best read in French; read it with a partner, or with a support group, of which there are many. There are also several English translations, most recently by a team of translators under the general editorship of Christopher Prendergast; in this translation, the title is rendered as In Search of Lost Time.
The Portrait of a Lady and The Wings of the Dove by Henry James
Henry James is considered one of the greatest American novelists; he lived most of his life in England and became a citizen of the UK in 1915, but his novels mostly describe Americans living or traveling in Europe. James wrote from the point of view of his richly drawn characters, with much interior monologue, allowing him to explore themes of perception and consciousness; his writing is akin to impressionistic painting. A good place to start would be the novels The Portrait of a Lady and The Wings of the Dove; movies have been made of both these novels in recent years, starring Nicole Kidman and Helena Bonham-Carter, respectively, as the protagonists. Both films are very good, but they don’t approach the richness of the novels themselves.
James Joyce’s Ulysses
James Joyce’s Ulysses, published in 1922, is a forerunner of modernist literature and a difficult read. For the uninitiated, Ulysses is best read with a group using study aids and other supplementary materials, but you’ll be well rewarded for your efforts. The book follows Dubliner Leopold Bloom through the course of an ordinary day (June 16, 1904), relying heavily on stream-of-consciousness and other experimental techniques; the novel is not “plot driven.” Ulysses is commemorated every June 16 in Dublin and elsewhere around the world in a celebration known as “Bloomsday”; usually, Bloomsday is highlighted by a full public reading of the novel.
Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow
Another difficult but immensely rewarding novel in the modernist tradition is Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), set primarily in Europe at the end of the Second World War. Pynchon traces more than 400 characters along various narrative threads that weave around each other; running themes include the V-2 rocket, free will versus Calvinist predestination, breaking nature’s cycles, paranoia and conspiracy theories, behavioral psychology, and more. The novel has been scrutinized in depth by literary scholars, with wide disagreement regarding its merits.
Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
If you enjoy reading history, your retirement years will provide ample time to sit back with one of the greatest historical works ever written, Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. This six-volume opus was written in the late 1700s; Gibbon’s relative objectivity and use of primary sources have led him to being called the first modern historian, and he remains a model for historians to the present day. Gibbon’s prose is filled with detail and is a joy to read; his broad topic covers not only the fall of the Western empire in Rome but also the long decline of the Eastern empire in Byzantium, until the sack of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. As an Enlightenment thinker, Gibbon was deeply suspicious of the Church, and he at least partially blames the “superstitions” of Christianity for the weakening of the empire.
Your choices for reading materials are limitless, and these are only suggestions. But if you challenge yourself in your reading, you will be amply rewarded.