NY Times Book Review, May 6, 2016

Beginning, Middle and End

By John Williams

In “The Bell Jar,” Sylvia Plath wrote: “When I was 19, pureness was the great issue.” “At 46,” Virginia Woolf told her diary, “one must be a miser; only have time for essentials.” Those are just two insights pegged to stages of life that are collected in “100 Years,” an anthology by Joshua Prager that pairs one literary excerpt with every age from birth to a century old.

The end result, with a varied color palette designed by the graphic artist Milton Glaser, looks clean and simple, but the path there was a slog. At one point while gathering material, Prager writes in the introduction, he read 2,700 pages by Tolstoy and Thomas Mann and came away with two usable references.

For writers, even the earliest youth inspires rueful reflection. At 2 years old, Wendy in “Peter Pan” “knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are 2. Two is the beginning of the end.”

The conceit allows room to gather everything from Freud’s ideas about childhood to Nora Ephron’s take on her neck, and it’s also ideally built for amusing aphorisms, like this one by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in “Cancer Ward”: “After the age of 40, a man’s flat gives a good indication of what he is and what he has deserved.”

As the pages pass, there is an increasingly wistful sense of what time takes from us. “He was turning 62,” Paul Theroux wrote in “The Lower River,” “not an age of life-altering shocks but only of subtle diminishments.” And near the end, at 94, we get the testimony of Hugh G. Flood from Joseph Mitchell’s “Old Mr. Flood”: “Except for the bottle, I always walked the straight and narrow; a family man, a good provider, never cut up, never did ugly, and I regret it.”