How to Live: A Search for Wisdom From Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth)
Arthor: Henry Alford
Actor and writer Henry Alford had a simple yet captivating idea: People must learn something in seven or more decades on Earth, and the younger set could probably benefit from what their elders have learned.
The thought launched Alford on a quest to interview senior citizens and absorb their knowledge before they die.
His subjects include Doris Haddock, or Granny D, known for her cross-country walk in support of campaign finance reform, Yale University literature professor Harold Bloom, counterculture hero and LSD advocate Ram Dass and a dumpster-diving aerospace engineer named Eugene Loh.
The results are somewhat more lacklustre than Alford had probably hoped. Granny D's main message seems to be that it's important to keep busy, even when the body is tired. Loh emphasizes the importance of economy as he doles out blackened bananas.
With Bloom and Dass, Alford engages in rambling conversations about wisdom and enlightenment that seem to have no real end or conclusion.
Alford supplements these conversations with observations gleaned from reading about wisdom and aging, but that leaves his book feeling much like a doctoral dissertation. This is not light reading.
The most compelling part of Alford's narrative comes from his parents' divorce. Early in his endeavour, he interviews his mother and stepfather, a man suffering from depression and prescription drug addiction. Three days later, his stepfather overdoses. Then, instead of cleaning up, he asks a neighbour for sleeping pills. Alford's mother leaves him.
Alford recounts the ensuing separation, his mother's move into a senior living centre and his stepfather's struggle to come to terms with divorce after the age of 70. His mother's determination to live her final years alone and well, rather than coupled and compromised, says more about learning from past mistakes than anything offered by Alford's supposedly wise interviewees.
Otherwise, the most memorable tip might be Alford's observation that ordering a bag of assorted bagels containing one garlic bagel, leaves a person with a bag of garlic bagels. That's wisdom to be used.