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Seeking Ageless Wisdom? Ask the Aged

by Jennifer Reese
Feb 19, 2009

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"It is commonly said — but I believe it anyway — that old people are wise," writes journalist and humorist Henry Alford on the first page of How To Live, his pompously titled, not at all pompous new book. A few years ago, Alford went digging for the wisdom of the ages, which he hoped to discover by talking to the aged. The result is a thoroughly nutty mess of a book that is also unexpectedly and intermittently wonderful.

Alford dutifully interviews a laundry list of grizzled luminaries, including imperious (but in this meeting, positively sweet) literary critic Harold Bloom, the wheelchair-bound author/guru Ram Dass and an exceedingly kooky Sylvia Miles, who keeps an Andy Warhol doll on a little shrine across from her toilet. His encounters are terrifically fun to read about, even if they yield few discrete pearls of wisdom, let alone an overarching philosophy.

Instead, the rambling narrative is held together by the unfolding marital crisis of his mother, Ann, and stepfather, Will. After 31 years of togetherness and Will's botched suicide attempt, Ann decides to end the relationship. Her exit line is characteristically blunt: "I've made my plans for the rest of my life, and they don't include you." As Alford puts it, "She doesn't cut to the chase; she starts at the chase."

This vibrant and idiosyncratic octogenarian unwilling to live out her remaining years in a moribund marriage becomes the story's de facto heroine. A bird-watcher and avid traveler, Ann is ever game for the new adventure, which includes playing the role of a Chiquita Banana in a retirement-home play.

Anecdotes and aphorisms pile up while Alford persists in attempting to glean wisdom from the senior set. In the end, however haphazardly, the book comes closer than you might initially expect to fulfilling the promise of its title. As a reporter, Alford is generous, droll and boundlessly curious, qualities that his favorite subjects, not coincidentally, also exhibit in abundance throughout this funny and eccentric volume.

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How to Live
By Henry Alford
Hardcover, 262 pages
Twelve
List price: $23.99

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