The best books on actually living before you die

Bruce Grierson Author Of What Makes Olga Run?: The Mystery of the 90-Something Track Star and What She Can Teach Us about Living Longer, Happier Lives
By Bruce Grierson

Who am I?

Writing the Olga book was a privilege in several senses. I got to hang out for five years with a remarkable human who kicked my butt (in the nicest possible way) and pulled me out of a midlife funk with the example of her indomitable spirit. Just as significantly, I got to delve deeply into the question of What makes some people almost … bulletproof? To what degree is healthy aging, well … a choice? This is really all a writer can ask for: to stumble on a subject that will never exhaust itself, that will just continue to open new angles. One way or another, I keep writing about Olga, and I suspect I always will.


I wrote...

What Makes Olga Run?: The Mystery of the 90-Something Track Star and What She Can Teach Us about Living Longer, Happier Lives

By Bruce Grierson,

Book cover of What Makes Olga Run?: The Mystery of the 90-Something Track Star and What She Can Teach Us about Living Longer, Happier Lives

What is my book about?

Olga Kotelko is not your average ninety-four-year-old. She not only looks and acts like a much younger woman, but she also holds over twenty-three world records in track and field.

Convinced that this remarkable woman could help unlock many of the mysteries of aging, Grierson set out to uncover what it is that's driving Olga. He considers every piece of the puzzle, from her diet and sleep habits to how she scores on various personality traits, from what she does in her spare time to her family history. What emerges is not only a tremendously uplifting personal story but a look at the extent to which our health and longevity are determined by the DNA we inherit at birth, and the extent to which we can shape that inheritance. It examines the sum of our genes, opportunities, and choices, and the factors that forge the course of any life, especially during our golden years.

The books I picked & why

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The Warmth of the Heart Prevents Your Body from Rusting: A French Recipe for a Long Life, Well-Lived

By Marie De Hennezel,

Book cover of The Warmth of the Heart Prevents Your Body from Rusting: A French Recipe for a Long Life, Well-Lived

Why this book?

Many books in my personal live-long-live-well library are about the physical element of healthy aging – basically: just keep moving. But healthy aging is just as much from the neck up from the neck down. As this one proves.

Marie de Hennezel is a French palliative-care psychologist …and this book excavates “the inexplicable, incomprehensible force that keeps human beings alive...” The psyche ripens as the body diminishes, and a keen new sensual perception blooms. Takeaway: “To an 80-year-old, a child’s smile has more currency than a three-course banquet does to a 40-year-old...”


Elements of Effort: Reflections on the Art and Science of Running

By John Jerome,

Book cover of Elements of Effort: Reflections on the Art and Science of Running

Why this book?

An absolute denominator of life is resistance. Nietzsche had it right: adversity helps so long as it doesn’t do us in, and we make the biggest changes in our life when life pushes back. That applies to longevity too; the kites that stay longest in the air are pinned there by resistance. John Jerome gets this. This isn’t a book about longevity, it’s a book about running – slight but wise, with a kind of shopcraft-as-soulcraft turn of mind, if you think of your own body as the machine in the shop. Really, the book is a defense of stretching, in every sense of the word. You have to make periodic jaunts to “edge city,” where you eat the beans of just-manageable difficulty.

Takeaway sentence: “Heroism is endurance for one moment longer.”


Running and Philosophy: A Marathon for the Mind

By Michael W. Austin (editor),

Book cover of Running and Philosophy: A Marathon for the Mind

Why this book?

Because the 21st century belongs to friendships. And camaraderie is the number 1 ingredient in the longevity recipe. We need each other. We need mutual assistance if we want to live not just longer but better. (What’s the saying? “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”) It’s easy to forget that in the tech age, which promotes ferocious independence (which ultimately isn’t much fun). Think of Durkheim’s notion of “collective effervescence”—which we missed big-time during Covid lockdown – and you’ll appreciate what Michael Austin, a philosopher from the University of Eastern Kentucky, is offering here. This is a philosophy with a healthy heart in every sense.

Adaptation to Life

By George E. Vaillant,

Book cover of Adaptation to Life

Why this book?

The retired Harvard psychiatrist shepherded the Grant Study of American men, one of the most robust longitudinal studies of humans ever done – basically examining the question: Why do some people live long and thrive? Here’s the science that confirms what everybody suspected, and I won’t tell you the answer but I think you can guess.

Vaillant is actually a pretty good writer too —which maybe isn’t surprising; literary chops are bred in the bone. George’s son, John Vaillant, is the mightly talented author of The Golden Spruce, among other books.


What I Talk about When I Talk about Running: A Memoir

By Haruki Murakami,

Book cover of What I Talk about When I Talk about Running: A Memoir

Why this book?

Murakami’s running memoir is really the first of his books that I’ve really understood. At least I think I understand it; maybe there’s an epiphany that will detonate on my death bed. It’s wild to see an avant-garde writer produce such a straight-up account of his running habit. His routine verges on boring, which is maybe the point. You hang in there with boredom, because on the other side of it is a fascination and maybe even enlightenment. A couple of Murikami’s lines popped into my head, like a tonic, as I struggled to not be dead-last in my heat in the 10,000 metres in the World Masters Games in 2011.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in running, France, and philosophy?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about running, France, and philosophy.

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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