Beginners : The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning By Tom Vanderbilt.

The research for the book itself may have taken place in happier times, but ''Beginners'' is still shadowed by Vanderbilt’s awareness of his own mortality. He repeatedly mentions being an ''older father''. ''My brain volume was atrophying annually,'' he writes, ''my cortical thickness waning each year.''

It’s worth noting that his wife, Janice Dunn, is the author of a 2017 book called “How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids,” in which she described her enormous fights with Vanderbilt over whose turn it was to empty the diaper pail.

Not far into ''Beginners,'' Tom Vanderbilt's tribute to the life-changing magic of learning new skills, he describes taking his young daughter snowboarding. At that time Vanderbilt's was nearing 50; he decided to approach the activity with an openmind, freed from all expectation, even if he was old enough to know what the risks were.

''I had no goals other than avoiding the hospital,'' he writes, after referring to the novelist Norman Rush's comparison of being in love to going into an undiscovered room. ''I just wanted to enter a new ''room.''

Avoiding the hospital and entering a new room : There are any number of people, hunkered down in their homes since the spring, who can probably relate, even if the circumstances couldn't be more different.

''Learning skills helps open new worlds,'' Vanderbilt writes, and he draws an analogy to babies learning to walk, who ''can suddenly go more places and do more things.'' There's a sudden poignancy to reading.

''Beginners'' at the end of 2020, when merely going to the grocery store qualifies as an ''exposure event,'' and the spirit of adventure has been largely eclipsed by the matter of survival.

Adults are afraid, that is - young kids tend to be just fine with it, which is why they're actually brilliant at being novices. They go out and do, unburdened by crippling self-consciousness; we think, then overthink, then think about our overthinking.

Language acquisition, Vanderbilt says, is an obvious case in point. Adults can be so anxious about saying the wrong thing that they clam up. Children just talk.

Vanderbilt enlists a number of teachers to help him engage in ''thoughtful practice.'' No matter the skill, one thing they keep emphasizing is that he has to get over himself and out of the way.

A lifetime of speaking, it turns out, can make singing harder. His jaws reflexively clench, his tongue is too tense to let vowels flow. Similarly, learning how to draw requires him to stop thinking about the object he is drawing and start seeing it. His art teacher told him to draw a chair ''by not drawing the chair,''  looking at it instead in terms of shadow and light.

These activities consume time and resources. ''All of this self-exploration, admittedly has the whiff of indulgent self-absorption,'' Vanderbilt concedes towards the end of his book.

''But for all the inward focus, these activities actually brought me outward. One of the greatest joys in being a beginner, it turns out, is meeting other beginners.'' That lesson, alas, will remain on hold for the rest of us, until a time when we can meet other people in other rooms.

The World Students Society thanks review author Jennifer Szalai.


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