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How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They Are Still on the Earth) by Henry Alford

By Mr. Controversy | Books | May 13, 2009 |

By Mr. Controversy | Books | May 13, 2009 |

Humans are funny. For the most part, they go about their lives doing what they damn well please, without any regard for what anyone else wants or does. However, it is when they get themselves into a situation they cannot dig themselves out of, that they turn to someone else and ask, “What do you think?” Some would say it’d indicative of the selfish nature of society, others would say it’s just the way we’re wired. Whatever the case, the search for wisdom and knowledge is one of the few features that comes factory installed with the human mind.

In the case of Henry Alford, he decided to embark on his own quest for knowledge after examining how his mother and stepfather were aging. His stepfather was mellow and didn’t like to travel, whereas his mother was the complete opposite. So he decided to ask them both about their thoughts and feelings on aging, and as such he sparked his own quest to gather the knowledge of others, all the while trying to figure out exactly what knowledge is and what it entails.

During the duration of his quest he would see his mother get divorced for a second time, have a cat put down, and end up omitting an interview with a celebrity who wanted to be paid for his time. These misfortunes and missteps are interesting enough, but it’s the actual gain from his quest that is the most interesting part of the book. True to the title, Mr. Alford interviewed many senior citizens, both well known and almost anonymous, and asked them for their takes on life and its many wrinkles.

So what exactly is the wisdom we should be seeking in our lives? According to this book, wisdom is indeed subjective. Phyllis Diller’s secret to life is that, “You have to fill the air with fun!” Doris Haddock, aka Granny D, uses her lifeforce to fight for something she feels is worth fighting for, conventionality be damned. Edward Albee espouses the belief that grief “…never ends. It’s like a third arm,” and that dying isn’t so much about who’s being left behind, but who’s doing the leaving. A wide variety of opinions is represented in this book, and parallel to the gathering of those opinions is the story of Henry’s mother and stepfather, and the separate paths they take after.

I found that as I read this book, it had an almost zen like quality to it. I could pick it up at any time, read a little, and come back to it when I pleased. Yet, as lax as the pacing sounds, it still carries a strong message with it: wisdom is a tricky thing, and it may not even exist at all. We’re all different, with our individual baggage and hangups, and it’s what we learn in those flaws and discrepancies that sets us apart from all others. So naturally, we’re going to want to be able to pass some sort of knowledge on. Is it because we’re egotistical, and want to leave some sort of legacy behind on this Earth? Or is it because we’re altruistic, like Althea Washington, and we just do things out of the goodness of our hearts. Whatever the case, knowledge is something that we have to both seek for ourselves and learn from others.

This book is enlightening, heartbreaking, and at times pretty funny. Overall, it’s a book that feels good about life, warts and all. This is a book a lot of people could use right now, because with all the troubles and scares the world has been surrounded with in the first half of this year, it’s nice to know that something so simple can make us smile.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. You can read more of Mr. Controversy’s (Mike R.) reviews and other miscellaneous matters over on his blog.

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