Why is William Ian Miller Losing It?
William Ian Miller is 65 years old. Yet, rather than trying to conceal his age—a practice that has grown commonplace in our age of cosmetic surgery—he has written a book about it.
Losing It: In which an Aging Professor laments his shrinking Brain, new from Yale University Press this fall, explores the timeless dilemma of aging, offering a historical, scientific, and literary perspective on the various consequences of old age. As Miller himself puts it in a lengthy subtitle which showcases the author’s self-described “gallows humor,” the work is, “A plaint, tragic-comical, historical, vengeful, sometimes satirical and thankful in six parts, if his Memory does yet serve.”
In a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this week, Miller explores his theme in brief, tracing his concerns about his own age, and its bearing on his status as a scholar. “There is no small amount of self-flattery in a lament of losing it,” he writes, “It claims, I once had it to lose.” In a passage that exhibits both his earnest anxieties surrounding the topic and his charming inclination towards self-parody, Miller wonders: “Have I inflated my own past abilities? Complaining about how much “it” I have lost is a claim to a reasonably worthy past…even if I acknowledge my descent, I am sneaking in a claim to being still plenty high in absolute terms.”
Despite Miller’s concerns, most would agree that he does not flatter himself overmuch; the tragicomedy of old age aside, there is no doubt that Miller had “it,” and does still. The Thomas G. Long Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School, where he has been on the faculty since 1984, in the last few years alone, Miller has written eloquently on everything from Medieval religious polemic to hatred, which he recently defined for The Oxford Companion to Emotion and the Affective Sciences.
With both a Ph.D. in English and a J.D. from Yale, Miller is a certifiable polymath; and indeed, in the first sentences of Losing It, Miller’s English background is on display as he breaks down the meaning of the book’s title. “In this book, “it” refers mainly to mental faculties—memory, processing speed, sensory acuity, the capacity to focus,” he writes, and goes on to describe the way in which he will draw from sources from the Bible to his favorite Old Norse sagas in order to explore the way in which the gradual loss of these mental faculties has been dealt with throughout history.
Miller’s own history is a lesson in the way in which, just as we may lose our capacities without any intention of doing so, we may discover them in a similarly coincidental manner. In a 2009 interview, he describes how he happened upon the field of Medieval Iceland and its literature, when, as a miserable graduate student in French history, he shifted departments and was fascinated by the required readings in his Old English class.
In the Old Norse sagas that he went on to study, Miller found literary value, but also sociological and psychological depth that has provided the foundation for much of his writing. One of his first books, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland (1990) dealt with legal code of the world of ancient Iceland’s sagas, and in 2008, Miller published an entire volume, Audun and the Polar Bear: Luck, Law, and Largesse in a Medieval Tale of Risky Business, on a short story in which a poor Icelander buys a bear and goes on a long journey to present it to the King of Denmark.
Aside from Medieval Iceland, Miller’s primary area of interest is emotions, specifically self-assessment, virtues and vices, themes he has explored in his books The Mystery of Courage (2000), Faking It (2003), The Anatomy of Disgust (1997), and Humiliation (1993). Losing It complements these texts, adding to Miller’s writing on the human experience, as it picks up on the anxiety we experience as we grow older, a sensation as powerful as the fear of exposure or feeling of disgust that appear in Miller’s other works.