How To Live: A Search for Wisdom
From Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth)
By Henry Alford
Twelve, 262 pages, $23.99
The cover of Henry Alford’s margarine-flavored book of old people’s advice starts with the misleading title, How to Live, continues with a picture of a wrinkly pooch, then hits with the sub–Hallmark Channel subtitle, A Search for Wisdom From Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth). Fans of Mr. Alford’s droll pieces about ex-boyfriends or Manhattan sidewalks in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and The Times will be sad to hear that things only get worse from there.
The problem isn’t that Mr. Alford is sanctimonious or heavy-handed—although he does describe being moved to tears by the brave generosity of a heavyset Katrina victim whose “blazing smile could light a small country.” The trouble is the book’s thick coating of high-fructose smiley syrup. How to Live reads like a coworker’s coffee mug epigram. In fact, the concluding interview is with epigrammist Ashleigh Brilliant, a man who shares sentences like “Let’s love one another, and get it over with.” Any work on wisdom that quotes Mr. Brilliant, Phyllis Diller and Harold Bloom is going to be either uproariously awesome or as terrifying as Chicken Soup for the Scrapbooker’s Soul.
HOW TO LIVE IS not about how to live. It’s not even about how to live as an old person. It’s 262 pages of either eccentric or moderately well-known elderly folk (an activist here, the author’s troubled stepfather there, with an “Alaskan native wisdom keeper” thrown in for good measure) sharing truisms—which by their nature are already widely known.
To his credit, Mr. Alford also stirs in some quotes from poetry and academic research. But whenever he gets onto something sharp, like Graham Greene’s dreams or 19th-century postmortem photography, he pivots to, say, listing famous last words (“Indian chief Crowfoot said, “A little while and I will be gone from you. From whither I cannot tell …”) or quoting his boyfriend’s notes about their recently deceased 17-year-old cat, Hot Rod. Boyfriend Greg offers that “Hot Rod avoided the cat clichés,” before writing, as if picking cat clichés out of a hat, “Hot Rod was the runt of his litter. … He expected life to caress him, and it did. … As he settled into maturity, with its attendant corpulence, he discovered the superior satisfactions of inertia.”
If all this sounds like it could be from an article in AARP The Magazine, that’s because Mr. Alford, as he discloses, once wrote an article about the wisdom of our elders for the American Association of Retired Persons. What’s more, he reveals that “certain of the authorities and VIPs” who turned him down for book interviews had been willing to participate when he was working on the magazine piece.
For the book, his best gets are Mr. Bloom, who, despite (or because of) the fact that he himself has written a treatise on wisdom, mostly offers that age has given him a “healthier respect and affection” for his wife; Edward Albee, who provides a heroically acidic interview; and Baba Ram Das, author of the ’70s best seller Be Here Now, who’s less acidic than uninterested.
Then there’s Mr. Alford’s endearingly eccentric mother, Ann, and her less-endearingly eccentric husband (the author’s stepfather). A crisis strikes soon after the three sit down to talk about wisdom, and good old Ann decides to leave her husband. The story of what happens afterward is, by far, the best part of How to Live.
MR. ALFORD BEGINS HIS book optimistic about spending time with “as many fascinating senior citizens as I can.” (The first chapter describes old people as libraries of knowledge: “I want borrowing privileges for the rest of my life. … And, oh, how some oldsters can talk.”) But halfway through, though still smiley, our author gets bored. “Somehow,” he admits, “rather than engaging me more fully, all of this contrary information had the effect of making me want to take a long nap.”
By the end, just before Ashleigh Brilliant pops up, our author is asking for witty aphorisms via email from elderly people he met on a Nation magazine cruise. That doesn’t work, so he cold-calls “senior centers and senior-friendly organizations.” That doesn’t work, either, so he heads to a famous Miami Beach deli—but, “sadly, the sidewalk in front of the restaurant was being repaired.”
Max Abelson is a reporter at The Observer. He can be reached at email@example.com.