HOW TO LIVE: A SEARCH FOR WISDOM FROM OLD PEOPLE (While They Are Still on This Earth) by Henry Alford (Hachette Twelve, 2009)
By THE WRITING DOCTOR: NY Hoffman, email@example.com,
16 San Rafael Dr, Rochester, NY, 585-385-1515
I wish I knew how Henry Alford did it.
Selling HOW TO LIVE: A SEARCH FOR WISDOM FROM OLD PEOPLE to the Hachette Group’s Twelve division was brilliant. Getting Publisher’s Weekly to anoint his useless undertaking as one of its “Best Nonfiction Books of the Year” was an even greater masterpiece of salesmanship. Would that Alford's book was up to the fulsome comments from reviewers who apparently never read its nattering in the guise of elderly wisdom.
Alford spends the first six chapters talking about how hard it was to corner wise—and famous—old people and why many of them cleverly refused to participate. The book finally turns on his 79-year-old mother’s divorce from his stepfather after 25 years of marriage, which ties it together and breaks it apart:
“People sometimes ask me if I feel in any way responsible for my mother’s divorce,” he notes, adding, “I don’t. Possibly I feel a small amount of responsibility vis-à-vis its timing. Will’s interview had some of the flavor of a deathbed confession. But obviously the divorce would have happened without me. I was merely yeast.”
Always acting as yeast but never as nutrition, Alford finally gets down to his interviews, first with sociologist Setsuko Nishi, as he introduces her with “The decisions we make can yield more pain than we expect.”
Yet his mother and his divorced stepfather Will intrude throughout this blessedly slim collection of empty words from such elders as Sherwin Nuland, Ashley Brilliant, Norman Mailer, Edward Albee, old-time comic Phyllis Diller, and spiritualist Ram Dass, now felled by a stroke.
Their age-acquired “wisdom” varies with their different personalities, what they know, what they remember, how they want to be remembered. Although literary giant Harold Bloom cautions, “wisdom is a very dark topic,” Alford neither listens nor defines what he’s after or what he finds among people grown older—but not necessarily smarter. Somehow, neither he nor we learn what they have found and what they are still looking for.
The dust jacket maintains (in italics, no less), “It makes you actually want to get older.” But it doesn’t . It just makes you want to figure out how Alford sold his book to a publisher and how the publisher convinced reviewers to sing its praises.