Michael Kinsley, who turned sixty-five this year, is arguably too young to have written a book he’s calling a primer to growing old. But as he acknowledges in Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide (Tim Duggan, $18), Kinsley has been nothing if not precocious for a good part of his career. Besides, he got a head start on experiencing and thinking about ageing when, at forty-three, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. This is a thin, small book, but it’s filled with insight, wit, and Kinsley’s characteristic well-pitched prose.
We go to religion to discover why we are born, why we die, why we suffer—and to find out if there’s anything after. The record of different approaches to these mysteries, from animism to myths to monotheism, is the ongoing quest Richard Holloway traces in his engaging A Little History of Religion (Yale, $25).The seventh in Yale’s series of brief overviews of complex subjects, this was inspired by E.H. Gombrich’s 1935 A Little History of the World and is designed for both adults and younger readers. Holloway’s focus on etymology, for instance, gives a solid introduction to terms like apocalypse, karma, and ecumenical, while also clearing these tenets of accumulated and misleading assumptions. As a former Bishop of Edinburgh who resigned after fourteen years of growing doubts, Holloway is familiar with both the allure and the elusiveness of spiritual fulfillment. “You don’t have to believe or accept any of this,” he says, “but if you want to understand religion, you have to get your mind into its way of thinking.” Religion’s way is artistic and interpretive; grounded in stories, symbols, and ritual, it deals in emotional truths. In Holloway’s even-handed treatment, each different faith is like one of the blind men describing an elephant in the Jain tale: they get at best an accurate, but incomplete picture of the whole. The problem isn’t the partial vision, but a faith’s failure to understand that it is partial, and Holloway laments religion’s tendency to make itself the “strange god” people worship instead of the divinity it claims to represent. But if some sects calcify, fresh ones keep rising, as if religion itself is caught in a cycle of death and rebirth, always hoping finally to get it right and reach Nirvana.
Sitting, eating, walking, loving, relaxing—human enough behaviors with varying degrees of difficulty. Now, in this serenely packaged How to Live Boxed Set (Parallax Press, $49.75), mindfulness teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s straight-forward advice for living in the present is even easier to access. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us to be still and to focus our attention on whatever act we are performing. Whether you are walking from your home to the metro, showing loving kindness for a friend, or simply listening to the sounds around you, stillness and openness will help you act with grace.