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How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth) by Henry Alford
How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth)

hogan, February 15, 2009

I'll be quite frank and say that although I'm madly in love with Henry Alford and am a Henry Alford completist (that is, I make a point to read pretty much everything he writes), I wasn't expecting to like this one all that much. Generally, I don't care much for books about One Man's Search for Wisdom -- they tend toward the maudlin and self-satisfied.

But I loved this one without reservation, and although I'm refraining from a five-star rating solely because I try to save that rating for life-changing classics, I wouldn't foreclose giving it that rating in the future after I've had a chance to digest it a little more.

Alford skillfully mixes autobiography (an account of his elderly mother's divorce from his elderly stepfather) with celebrity interview (Phyllis Diller, Sylvia Miles, Edward Albee, Ram Dass) with common-man interview, without descending into the self-involvement that so often afflicts this genre. As you might imagine, the common-man interviews are by far the most affecting -- I dare you to read Alford's interview with Althea Washington without tearing up at least once. And the people reading this who know me in real life know that I'm a pretty hardened cynic, so when I say I cried enough while reading this book on the subway that I had to duck my head a bunch of times so as not to embarrass the other passengers -- well, take from that what you will.

And of course, as to be expected in any of Alford's books, it's often knowing and funny, as in this passage:

"It occurs to me that there are some kinds of wisdom that I can't get a purchase on, perhaps because I am too callow to do so -- as in the Jean Cocteau directive, 'Whatever the public criticizes in you, cultivate. It is you.' I once actually sat and wrote down all the criticisms that have come my way over the years, in an effort to understand what Cocteau was getting at. When I contemplated emphasizing all of them, I thought, This might be a fascinating exercise. Thirty seconds later I thought, Are you out of your fucking mind?"

Of course, Alford doesn't find wisdom -- at least not in the sense that he comes to any sort of definitive answers -- and he doesn't pretend to. As with the most worthwhile endeavors, it's the journey that counts, and embarking on this journey with Alford is a genuine pleasure.
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