Part family memoir, part Studs Terkel, How To Live considers some unusual sources--deathbed confessions, late-in-life journals--as well as offering a rich compilation of interviews with the over-70 set to deliver a highly optimistic look at our dying days.
How to Live sets itself apart from other collections of acquired wisdom in that it gives equal weight to the opinions of celebrated academics and to the opinions of those who have gained insight through life experience (and/or drugs). The narrative is beautifully interwoven with the story of his mother who, partly as a result of an interview for this book, separated from her husband of thirty-six years and, without a moment of self-doubt, altered her entire life at age seventy-nine because it was the “right thing” for her to do.
Alford dives headlong into his investigation, discussing everything from the ancient Sumerians, whose practical advice for daily life was “He who possesses much silver may be happy” and “We are doomed to die, let us spend,” to Socrates, whose wisdom paradoxically lay in knowing that he was not wise. From these engaging, and often hilarious, sojourns into cultural history, Alford is able to distill accessible and clearly-defined theories about the true nature acquired knowledge. The danger with philosophizing about wisdom, however, is that perhaps “there is no wisdom, there are only relations between bits of wisdom.”
Interspersed with the acerbic humor that characterizes all of Alford’s writing, he casts a wide net, interviewing a spectrum of different personalities. Eighty-nine year old Granny D, for example, walked from southern California to Washington D.C., skiing the last hundred miles, to advocate campaign finance reform. Eugene Loh, an eighty-seven year old aerospace engineer with degrees from Cal Tech, Purdue and Stanford, habitually eats out of garbage cans (removing cigarette butts when necessary) and hitchhikes around town despite owning a car. Using these incredible anecdotes to bring home his point, Alford seamlessly juxtaposes various notions of acquired wisdom—some pertaining to the social good and others the personal—to bring out their subtle relationships through his witty and engaging prose.
Perhaps the most important example of a wise person found between the covers of this book, from Socrates to Harold Bloom, is his mother. However contradictory, her words and actions ring the most true. She loves her ex-husband but cannot suffer through his relapse. She wants him to have hope, but refuses to ever let him back into her life. Contradictions like these are at the heart of elderly wisdom. Of the five traits that comprise wisdom, Alford found that the one most commonly shared between his subjects is a certain “nonattachment” to the eccentricities of life. As frightening as it may sound, with old age comes distance and ambivalence—a wisdom best typified by the actions of his mother, who both begins and concludes this narrative. Not one to pull any punches, Alford writes “in the end, it appears we’re alone with our demons.”
HOW TO LIVE: A Search for Wisdom from Old People, by Henry Alford, will be published by TWELVE on January 2, 2009.
There is something honest and earnest about Henry's writing that really appeals to me. Maybe it's because we are close in age and share a similar sense of humor, but I feel like I know him. (This is the second book of his that I have read)