Each year more people live to be 100 years old. In 2021, there were nearly 90,000 centenarians living in the United States. But 109? And a healthy, robust 109 to boot? To live a century plus and
be of sound mind and body is indeed a rarity, but the subject of The Book of Charlie
accomplished just that. Veteran Washington journalist David Von Drehle chronicles the remarkable life of Midwest physician Charlie White, who was born in the early 20th century and lived a decade into the 21st. After moving to Kansas City, Missouri, Von Drehle and White established a relationship, first as neighbors, and ultimately as friends. The result is the story of a human being who not only lived a long life, but lived that life to its fullest. Von Drehle describes how Charlie White navigated through decades with an unflinching combination of stoicism, optimism, and good old-fashioned grit. At its face, The Book of Charlie
tells the story of a remarkable man who lived a long and fascinating life, but in the end it is “a book about surviving, even thriving through adversity and revolutionary change.” TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. David Von Drehle (DVD) sought to write a book for his children. On page 2 he writes, “It’s not the book they asked for, but I believe it’s the book that they need.” Discuss the main lessons that you took from the book. What scenes from Charlie White’s (CW) long life resonated most strongly with you? If you were to write a book for a child, family member, or friend, what experiences from your own life would serve to illustrate a lesson worth sharing and/or learning?
2. As DVD brainstormed ideas for what would become The Book of Charlie
, he realized “I must go back another generation or two to find a role model and scout for them―a true surfer on a sea of change (p. 5).” How did Charlie “surf” through the many changes he witnessed over the course of his life? What role models exist in your own life who have surfed the waves of time? Describe these role models in your life.
3. In Chapter 2, the author describes an early impression of CW: Life seemed to rest more lightly on him than on other men. Though…he knew more than his share of sadness and hard work, Charlie didn’t resent life’s insults or protest its humiliations.
How can resentments undercut a life well-lived? Discuss how you cope with resentments, and how CW’s ability to let life “rest lightly on him” can be applied to your own daily life.
4. Discuss the concept of joie de vivre
, translated from the French to joy of living
. How does CW demonstrate this exuberance for living? How can a “grateful attention to the beauty of life (p. 10) increase one’s joy? What does the “choice to see its [life’s] beauty is available to us at every moment (p. 10)” mean to you? How can you choose to see the beauty in life, even when times are challenging?
5. In Chapter 5, DVD describes the odyssey to California that CW took with two of his high school friends. On page 57, he writes, “Resourcefulness is a close cousin of resilience.” Discuss how resourcefulness relates to resilience. Share examples of how you draw upon your personal resources to get through life’s challenges. What does the author mean by the “learning attitude of youth?” How can you tap into this attitude in your adult life?
6. The author shares that the year he met Charlie White was “also the year Apple introduced the first iPhone (p. 77).” He goes on to write, “He [CW] understood that thriving through change begins with an eagerness for The New.” How eager are you to embrace change and the seemingly endless advances in contemporary society? Discuss examples of instances in which you embraced change. How did you go about it? In contrast, discuss examples of how you’ve struggled with societal shifts, such as social media, technology, and shifts in cultural norms.
7. CW’s mother was a powerful influence in how he lived his life. DVD writes in Chapter 6 that, “By today’s standards, though, she would seem almost neglectful. In Charlie’s memory, her parenting boiled down to a single all-purpose piece of advice: ‘Just do the right thing.’ This simplicity is so removed from my own generation of helicopter parents. My parenting mistakes…stem from overinvolvement rather than benign neglect (p. 95).” Discuss benign neglect versus helicopter parenting styles. What are the pros and cons of both? Given how the world has changed since CW’s youth, do you think there is a happy medium? What are your views on “overinvolvement” in a child’s life?
8. On page 106, the author quotes the poet E.E. Cummings: Once we believe in ourselves we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit
. How are self-belief and taking risks related? Discuss examples from the book that illustrate how CW’s self-belief allowed him to take risks that resulted in personal growth. Share examples from your own life in which your belief in yourself (abilities, faith, strengths) allowed you to take a risk that resulted in a positive outcome.
9. The author discusses how CW’s realization of his limited medical training taught him humility (p. 110). What is humility? How do you demonstrate humility in your own life? Do you think humility is a natural occurring emotion, or one born out of experience? How are humility and gratitude related?
10. On page 134, DVD discusses personal identity and the concept of “true self.” Discuss the following questions the author poses on this page: If all the trappings were stripped away, leaving only my true self, who would I be? Am I living fully as that self in every moment? And when it ends, will my story have meaning?
11. In Chapter 9, DVD describes how CW “doubled down on this naturally affirmative nature, his inclination to say yes: yes to adventure, yes to experiment, new ideas. How does “saying yes,” living in the affirmative, open the door to a life lived “in full (p. 154?)”
12. In his 109 years on the planet, Charlie White touched the lives of countless people. The author shares a series of “flashbulb memories” of CW’s life. “These are moments and images that stand out as if floodlit in the dim twilight of our busy, jumbled memories (p. 173).” Reflect back to your own life. Share scenes, moments, and experiences that stand out to you as personal “flashbulb memories?” ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB Words of Wisdom.
The author cites many texts, some ancient, some more contemporary, throughout The Book of Charlie
: Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Victor Hugo, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and E.E. Cummings. Choose a selection of texts by one or more of these authors. At your next meeting, discuss how your selection relates to The Book of Charlie
. A Celebration of Humanity: The Chautauqua Movement.
On page 21, readers learn that CW’s father “preferred to swim in a different intellectual stream, [and] accepted a prominent role in the local Chautauqua movement, the annual grassroots celebration of art and ideas that spread across the heartland at the turn of the century.” Explore the Chautauqua Institution website: https://www.chq.org/
. Choose and participate in an online discussion or event hosted by this historic organization. A Philosophy of Life.
Late in his life, an interviewer asked CW to describe his philosophy of life. “I just plowed along, he finally said.” Ultimately, CW penned a list of “definitive commands,” and “distilled his philosophy of life (p. 189).” Review the “commands” found on pages 189-191. Which ones most resonate with you? Spend a few minutes crafting your own personal list of definitive commands that describe your own life philosophy.
Guide created by Colleen Carroll, literacy educator, content creator, and author of the How Artists See
series (Abbeville Kids). Learn more about Colleen at www.colleencarroll.us.