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The Number: A Completely Different Way To Think About the Rest Of Your Life

by Lee Eisenberg

I was very proud of myself because when this book caught my eye in a local bookstore recently, I raced down the street to check it out of the library first. I have had a lifelong habit of buying first and deciding later… often much later. In fact, over the past year and a half, I’ve gotten rid of at least three hundred books that I never read, or read and didn’t like enough to re-read, or never finished. A lot of this was codependent book-buying: I had so many books that I thought I should own, so that I could convince other people to read them. You know, Important Political Books that would make them see why they should think a certain way, usually about things like race in America or class in the 20th century or women in the workplace. And I had even more books that I thought I should own because, well, they seemed like “my” kind of books. I thought that they “proved” something about me - like that I had the right ideas about race or class or gender or sexuality or…. It took me years to look at why I actually owned them and accept that it clearly wasn’t for reading.

Those were the books that I wanted to want to read. There was a whole other category after that: books that I wanted to finish or to like. I wasn’t trusting my feelings about them. What if I got rid of one and then realized I desperately wanted to read it? What if I got rid of something that I didn’t know I would really like? Worst of all were the books that I really wasn’t sure about. All the ones that looked like they might be good, but which I had never gotten around to reading and didn’t feel that motivated to try. A whole lot of these were books that had seemed really exciting in the store, but which turned dull and uninspirational as soon as I got them home. Could it be that it was just the thrill of the chase, of picking out and spending tons of money on books, that made me want them in the first place?

Well, I was finally willing to face reality. And I still have hundreds of books. I’d say at this point they break down pretty much into 60% comfort books that I love to read over and over again, 30% books that I haven’t read and think I would really enjoy if I could bring myself to try them, and 10% reference sorts of books. I lean very heavily toward comfort reading, whether it’s books that I have read before or books I know I will love and am excited about trying. Facing a book that looks good when I flip through it, but which I know nothing about, is like trying to psych myself up to get into a cold swimming pool. Sure, most of the time I love it once I’m in there and can’t wait to go back, but it’s really hard to overcome that initial bump.

I guess it’s a kind of fear, fear of the cold plunge or the inhospitable novel. And thinking of it that way helps a lot. I can separate fear and reality; I know that there’s nothing I actually need to be afraid of in starting a new book, because I am also finally willing to put down a book that sucks instead of trying to struggle on through. If I refuse to buy into that bump of fear, I can see that I am just trying a new book on for size to see if it meets my needs. I can see that I have the power to make sure my reading needs get met; I’m not at the book’s mercy. And I like thinking of it from that angle, like I’m challenging the book to pull me in and give me what I want. It puts the power back in my hands, instead of giving me the illusion that I’m at the mercy of a bad book.

The Number was a good book, with some important information. It’s about the amount that we need to retire, about what different people do with retirement and how that is changing, about how different people save for retirement and how that is changing. One of the big points I took away with me, which he makes repeatedly, is that a whole lot of people don’t start thinking about planning for retirement until they are about 50 - and that for many people, that is way too late.

Eisenberg explains a wide range of ways that people fund their retirements, like increasingly rare pensions, chancy inheritance, possibly-chancier Social Security, and more. The Number is packed full of human interest stories: he profiles different people, even imaginary people, and visits Sun City to investigate how heavily it really traffics in polyester high-waisted pants and golf courses. He holds off for most of the book on any really detailed explanation of how to figure out how much you really need, saving that for the end. He does, however, talk at length about the professionals whose job it is to figure it out, what they do, and how they ended up doing it anyway.

I was confused for the first two-thirds or so of the book, because I expected more nuts and bolts about how to find “my number.” I thought there would be worksheets, checklists, formulas. I enjoyed the meandering trip through what other people have done, but it felt undirected. Once I accepted (acceptance again!) that Eisenberg just had a different idea of where the book should be going than I did, I got a lot more out of it - but I do think it should have done a little more work to tell the reader where we were going to go. A bigger problem, I think, was that even though he talked to a lot of different people with different Numbers and different plans and lifestyles, they were all solidly middle-class and above. The middle-class people tended to be older, with decades of continuous service at companies with nice pension plans; the younger people, who wouldn’t have had pensions, tended to have lucrative careers. Eisenberg also (like many people who write about finances) clearly doesn’t understand the emotional and psychological roots of binge-spending and not taking care of ourselves; he says a lot of good things about avoiding the debt spirals that we are urged into by credit card companies, but portrays compulsive debtors as both confusingly out of control and as being able to stop on (metaphorically speaking) a dime.

A book about how you probably aren’t saving enough for retirement and you might already be screwed doesn’t sound like an enjoyable, positive tome. But there was a lot of hope sprinkled throughout the stories in the form of different saving, earning, and lifestyle options. And, most of all (to me), in our future longevity. According to Eisenberg, a lot of people who study health and longevity are projecting that people will be living to 150 even within our current lifespan - that is, we’ll be alive to see this happen, and maybe even to experience it ourselves. And they are starting to think that it’s likely humans will reach lifespans of 400 years, “joining the ranks of lobsters, sturgeons, sharks, alligators, and tortoises, all of which scientists classify as nonaging creatures. Gerontologist Leonard Hayflick explains that these species just keep growing, albeit more slowly over time. Physiological functions, while reaching a peak, don’t demonstrably decline as they age.” The financial flipside: we can no longer assume that we’ll only live a few years after retirement. People planning for, and even enjoying, retirement today must (at least for safety’s sake) assume that they will live to see at least 100.

It left me with a lot to think about, and very glad to have read it at age 29 instead of, say, 49. I’ve always pictured “retirement” as an age where I am enjoying the continuation of a very flexible and lucrative career, writing books or giving keynote speeches for plenty of money as I choose to while I travel or play or do whatever I like, hopefully with excellent health. Eisenberg’s book gave me more information I needed about how to plan both for that and for other possibilities at once. I’d say it falls firmly into the categories of books I like to read, maybe even more than once, and books that I want to give away - to all my friends and relatives, so that they can be prepared too.

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