Fame and fortune are within your reach: ‘A Book of Ages’ charts turning points of notables in art and history

Whew! There’s still plenty of time left to amass my fortune and see the world. Why, when he was my age, J.R.R. Tolkien had just imagined his first hobbit, Joseph Heller had just published “Catch-22” and James Stewart had just starred in the box-office dud “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Of course, Charlotte Bronte and George Gershwin had to go and die when they were my age, but hey. They were precocious.

“Most people assume if you’re going to amount to anything, you need to make a big splash in your 20s. I didn’t,” says Minneapolis-based writer and illustrator Eric Hanson, whose “A Book of Ages:An Eccentric Miscellany of Great and Offbeat Moments in the Lives of the Famous and Infamous, Ages 1 to 100″ (Harmony Books, $19.95) has just been published.

Hanson speaks at the Bookcase of Wayzata on Monday (Dec. 15).

“I just turned 53 a few weeks ago — the age when Charles Darwin grew a beard, Walt Whitman wrote his will, Walt Disney opened a theme park in California, FDR introduced Social Security, the prophet Muhammad had nine wives and Brigham Young had 14, Sammy Davis Jr. did a commercial for Alka Seltzer, and Annie Oakley retired from show business.”

That’s how Hanson thinks, and it’s frankly inspirational. In these uncertain times, it’s reassuring to know that one can still reinvent oneself, find fame and fortune or change the world at nearly any point in life. Hanson’s book compiles, age by age, the accomplishments of some of the most notable people in art and history. He started obsessing over this particular strain of trivia in his early 30s.

“I began to think about what various great individuals were doing — or wishing they had done — at the age I was then. Famous writers and artists, explorers and inventors and scientists, politicians and movie stars and rock stars. How did I measure up?”

“A Book of Ages” is really a book of lists. Each age, or chapter, is a rundown of a few dozen individuals in small paragraph form. It’s fast and fascinating reading. Hanson says he could have finished his book at an earlier age, but he pondered it for more than two decades, collecting tidbits whenever they came his way.

“I like reading biographies, always have. But I also read a lot of magazines and newspapers: the New Yorker, the Times Book Review, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Smithsonian, the Atlantic. I listen to public radio and the BBC. I hear Garrison Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac” every day. I find books of anecdotes irresistible, which is why the stories in my book take that form: brief, true, funny, telling a lot about a famous person in one paragraph.

“As I wrote down one story it would remind me of another person, and I would look to see what they were doing at that age. Or I would be reminded of another famous moment, or a famous picture: when was it painted or when was it taken? It became a train of thought, a game of free association. When did Joe Dimaggio become the spokesman for Mr. Coffee? How old was Shirley Temple when her photograph appeared on the cover of Sgt. Pepper? When did Whistler paint his mother?”

The book goes up to age 100, although frankly, most of us hope to peak a little sooner than that. But there is no best age, Hanson says. “Whatever age you are right now has the greatest resonance because the concerns are immediate. You may envy half the people you read about, but you might feel luckier than the others.

“When I was younger, I found the later chapters of biographies sad, and some of the middle chapters either boring or hard to relate to. It was because I wasn’t there yet. I hadn’t lived long enough to understand. Every age has its own ironies and contents and discontents. Anecdotes like the ones I’ve collected in ‘A Book of Ages’ have a way of teasing them out. It creates a picture which I find both amusing and rich.”

Eric Hanson reads from “A Book of Ages”
Where: Bookcase of Wayzata, 607 East Lake St., Wayzata
When: 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 15
More information: 952-473-8341

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