Resolution 2: Read more deeply. (Tweets don’t count.)  

Of course, learning from Odysseus requires an investment in reading time. To focus deeply on any story, for that matter, we need “a certain kind of silence, an ability to filter out the noise,” writes Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin C’84. In The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, he examines the “noise,” in the form of snarky blogs and vapid news updates, and reflects on the books that have influenced him as a child, a young man, and a maturing time-traveler.

Ulin’s book opens with his own teenage son, Noah, as he rails against having to annotate his reading of The Great Gatsby for a class assignment and utters words that must provoke any adult who has made a living and a life from reading books: “This is why reading is over. None of my friends likes it. Nobody wants to do it anymore.”

Ulin wonders if Noah might be right. Lately he’s noticed his attention wandering when he sits down with the printed page; he attributes this to the lure of email and the Internet, the distraction of the 24-hour news cycle, and “the sense that there is something out there that merits my attention, when in fact it’s mostly just a series of disconnected riffs, quick takes and fragments, that add up to the anxiety of the age.”

The anonymous comments threads on so many websites, which amount to “little more than a collection of parallel monologues,” only add to the chaos. Some are “intelligent and cogent comments,” Ulin concedes; others are “written in a patois barely approximating English, fulminating, outraged, like small embryos of hate.”

One way Ulin shuts out the noise is through the structure of his book, which lacks the typical chapter breaks and instead takes the reader on a winding stroll through his own literary memories, such as filming an adaptation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis with his Penn classmates.

We see Ulin, the teenager, escaping the “brittle clannic gossip” of family holiday gatherings with his head in a book. We get a peek at Ulin, the Penn graduate, scouring bookstalls across Europe for works from writers like Scottish novelist Alexander Trocchi, whose brand of existentialism apparently made Camus look sunny.

Even if today he’s never far from his BlackBerry, Ulin clearly has not lost a sense of why books matter. Writers and readers “take language and put it through a personal metamorphosis, reacting to it, reinventing it, making it our own,” he writes. “The best books are those most open to such a process, the ones that seem to grow along with us, allowing us to inhabit them in different ways at different times.”

Despite Ulin’s critique of the “noise,” this is not a manifesto against the computer age. For example, he heartily endorses one Facebook page, “I Attend Jay Gatsby’s Parties,” where thousands of users around the world have responded to Fitzgerald’s classic by posting comics, photos, videos, and comments. At this party, there are many conversations, but all the guests interact with the same text to create a meaningful whole. One wonders what the conversations would be like if more of these parties were thrown.

So what happens when long-form reading escapes the bounds of the printed book? Ulin expresses some concerns about the proliferation of electronic readers, which potentially “privatizes the most public acts of reading.” If your reading material consists solely of what you’re able to download (with single-user rights) on your Kindle or iPad, you can’t share your favorite book with a friend, nor can anyone “come into your house and peruse your shelves,” he writes.

Despite his preference for the physical text, Ulin makes room for e-readers. He writes, “I can’t help but feel hopeful about the buzz these devices generate, all those people reading books on screen.”

What matters, after all, is the connection made with another, whether through pages turned or bytes digested. “Reading is … perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being,” Ulin writes. “We possess the books we read, animating the waiting stillness of their language, but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves.”

Resolution 3: Dress for your current life.

Like the books we read, our clothing choices also play a role in shaping how we evolve as we age. In What to Wear for the Rest of Your Life: Ageless Secrets of Style, style guru Kim Johnson Gross CW’74 addresses the woman who has accumulated years of experience and perhaps also a closet full of outfits that no longer fit her complexion, shape, or lifestyle.

Gross, a former Ford model and fashion editor who co-created the Chic Simple book series in the 1990s, found herself in this situation at age 50, when she discovered “the Alien” on her belly. This deposit of abdominal fat happened to coincide with other life changes, including divorce and the close of her business.

“The infallible self-image that I had held for so long was of an attractive, youthful, strong, energetic woman who would always be the tall, slim one in the crowd,” she writes. All of this changed “when an elegant older woman in tai chi class commented on how gracefully I moved considering I was pregnant.” All of a sudden, “The closet that had been a safe haven was elevated to code red.”

While Gross comes to accept her new shape, she also realizes it’s time for a fresh start. She takes steps to make sure she is as healthy as possible, inside and out, and analyzes her wardrobe. Gross personalizes this style guide with her own predicaments, such as having to pick out the best outfit in which to meet her ex’s “next,” while guiding her readers to put together their own “feel-good” closets.

She also shares the wisdom of other women, including one 50-something who, after being diagnosed with breast cancer, always dressed her best for appointments with her oncologist. “I wanted the doctor to get the message that I was going to live.”

Gross downplays fashion fads while focusing on some unchanging style rules, such as “achieve visual balance” and “use color to your advantage.” With a nod to the downsized economy, she suggests that readers first “shop” their own closets to find clothes that fit well and inspire confidence.

Her overall tone is optimistic, encouraging, and sisterly, though at times her advice can seem a little proscriptive. In one series of fashion prompts, Gross writes that “Age appropriate is turning your favorite mini skirts into pillows, regardless of how great your legs are.”

Mostly, though, Gross works in compromises, advising readers who can’t quite button their pants to “wear a top long enough to hide the unmentionable” and suggesting accessories like an eye-catching necklace to draw attention away from an aging neck.

She also recognizes that letting go, while necessary, can be hard. Gross admits that she’s hung on to a few outgrown outfits (including an impractical micro-mini) because of the memories they hold, even as she makes room in her closet for her next adventures.

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FEATURE: A Shelf Full of Resolutions by Susan Frith
Illustrations by Jay Bevenour
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