three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
40-May-June-2009
By: 
Henry Alford
user_rating: 
0

A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth)

A-How to LiveThurber Prize–winning humorist (Big Kiss) and Vanity Fair contributing editor Henry Alford tracks down septuagenarian wisdom in his latest book.

The Topic: How to Live begins with the premise that wisdom comes with age. Alford set a baseline of 70 years old and collected as much of that wisdom as possible from those over 70 before it disappeared. Combining interviews with the famous (Edward Albee and Phyllis Diller, for example) and the not so famous (Alford’s parents), deathbed confessions, lessons from Alford’s aging cat, and favorite sayings on wisdom, the book celebrates the quirky humor, individualism, and hard-earned experience of our elders from all walks of life. It is also a sobering memoir that recounts the dissolution of his mother and stepfather’s 36-year marriage. In the end, Alford acknowledges wisdom as a fluid, evolving concept.
Twelve. 262 pages. $23.99. ISBN: 0446196037

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Alford proves to be a genial, self-deprecating, consistently witty and entertaining facilitator and narrator. … The author artfully threads his personal story through the narrative." Eric Liebetrau

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The book succeeds both as an accessible survey of wisdom and the personal journey of a midlife man who, like many of us, is trying to see the road ahead with the assistance of the rearview mirror of those who precede him. The book’s excesses … are more than forgiven on a journey that transmits so many practical insights and—dare I say it—wisdom." Paula L. Woods

Christian Science Monitor 3 of 5 Stars
"If Alford had hoped that the senior citizens he canvassed would drop pearls of life wisdom into his tape recorder, it didn’t exactly work out that way. … The thoughts of the interviewees are not always inspired and there are moments when—despite Alford’s moxie and sly humor—the process drags." Marjorie Kehe

Cleveland Plain Dealer 2.5 of 5 Stars
"How to Live is like an antsy teenager, skittering over subjects, prone to awkward stretches. If a reader is feeling generous, this is eclecticism; if not, this is sloppiness. Either way, Alford has turned out, in his third book, a very loose-hinged contraption." Karen R. Long

Boston Globe 2 of 5 Stars
"Why the tale of [Alford’s mother’s] divorce takes up so much space in a collection of wisdom-generating conversations with old people is beyond me. … Alford, an award-winning humor writer, often seems more interested in dramatizing his anxieties than drawing conclusions." Rebecca Steinitz

NY Times Book Review 2 of 5 Stars
"Alongside the relentless grab bag of quotations from Confucius, Buddha, Socrates and The Precepts of Ptah-Hotep, Alford has a powerful, personal story to tell, all kidding aside. … There’s nothing funny or ham-handed about this family tale." Alex Beam

Critical Summary

"A bit David Sedaris, a bit Charles Grodin" (Cleveland Plain Dealer), with a little Studs Terkel and Mitch Albom (Tuesdays with Morrie) thrown in for good measure, Alford, when he’s on, has all the critics in stitches. They extol his keen wit and ability to keep a somber subject lighthearted. Drawing on such a wide range of source material has its benefits and drawbacks: Alford covers a lot of ground, but the result is, for some reviewers, a narrative that’s a little too slack and uninspired. Whether it’s his treatment of his mother’s marriage or a rumination on his aging cat’s wisdom, some things just seem out of place. Then again, maybe when we’re older, we’ll come back to How to Live, and it will all make perfect sense.