How to Live by Henry Alford

by P.B. Samuelson

4 January 2009

 

Henry Alford, winner of the Thurber Prize for American Humor writing and contributing editor for both Vanity Fair and Travel and Leisure, has embarked on a quest to seek out wisdom from America’s senior citizens in his new book How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They Are Still On This Earth).

Unlike 80, which focuses on affluent white Americans and made Alford want to “maim a small animal”, or The Last Lecture, a proscriptive guide to seizing the day, How to Live is an accumulation of wisdom from old folks of different races, economic classes, and sexual orientations.

cover art

How to Live

Henry Alford

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

(Twelve)

In this nonfiction accumulation of anecdotes, truisms and pearls of wisdom, Alford is able to gain an almost unbelievable level of confidence from his subjects to discuss the epiphanies—large and small—that arise over the course of a lifetime. 

Investigative humor is not a genre that one hears about very often. Alford, however, has made it his career. How to Live is his third such project, following Big Kiss: One Actor’s Desperate Attempt to Claw His Way to the Top and Municipal Bondage: One Man’s Anxiety-Producing Adventures in the Big City

Aside from the humor, 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 36 years and, without a moment of self-doubt, altered her entire life at age 79 because it was the “right thing” for her to do.

Alford dives headfirst 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 of 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 87 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

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