I’m a sucker for the quest story in fiction but especially in nonfiction. I see more and more of them popping up in the nonfiction section, but I usually only get to a few each year despite how much I enjoy getting lost in another person’s inward and outward journey. My latest find is Daniel Klein’s simple and short yet deep memoir Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life.
In Travels with Epicurus, Klein, in his early 70s, seeks not the answer to a fulfilling life in general but specifically to living a fulfilling life in old age. He discusses at the beginning of this slim book how a recent visit to the dentist left him with two options for his problematic teeth: dentures with their “old man look” or the expensive and time-consuming process of implants. Klein’s initial impulse was to get the implants since the knee-jerk reaction for many of us, he points out, is to do whatever it takes to appear young to ourselves and the outside world.
Quickly, however, Klein realized that he didn’t want to spend precious time on expensive appointments for his teeth. He need not mind looking like an old man, he realized. He was an old man! It occurred to Klein that he didn’t have to buy into the whole forever young movement, that he didn’t have to take up entirely new hobbies, learn new languages, and rely on supplements to compete with younger men.
This realization that old age doesn’t have to be about trying to stay young is the beginning of Klein’s journey. He takes his philosophy books to the Greek Island of Hydra (a place he had spent time throughout his life) to see if he can find more ways to appreciate what old age has to offer rather than spend the rest of his life fighting what should be a natural, thoughtful, and relaxing stage. The philosopher Klein turns to most often in the book is Epicurus.
The book begins, in fact, with this quote from Epicurus: “It is not the young man who should be considered fortunate but the old man who has lived well, because the young man in his prime wanders much by chance, vacillating in his beliefs, while the old man has docked in the harbor, having safeguarded his true happiness.” Klein seems to come to this same discovery as he observes the way old age is approached in Hydra. He finds an alternative to the stressful approach to old age where you’re made to feel you’re not doing enough, haven’t left your mark and must do so before you run out of time. Klein points out that the frenzied, stressful lifestyle has it’s place in mid-life, but there’s a time to leave all that behind.
Klein is a serious author dealing with heavy topics, but his writing style is light and conversational. If you’re looking for a refreshing treatise of sorts against the forever young way of approaching the last decades of life, then Travels with Epicurus is for you.