Nearly dying from an intestinal blockage in 2003 had a profound effect on Alan Alda. It brought him a second life and, with it, a first book, his bestselling memoir Never Have Your Dog Stuffed (see my review), published in 2005. Happily, Alda's appetite for introspection, intensified by his near-death experience, was not satisfied by the one foray into autobiography. He was moved to write Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself as a means of answering a question that had begun pricking at him. After leaving death behind in a Chilean hospital, along with three feet of intestine, Alda began to wonder whether he had lived a meaningful life and to ask himself, more generally, what constitutes a meaningful life.
The title of Alda's book alludes to the approach he adopted in trying to come up with an answer to that question. Alda dug up speeches he had delivered on various occasions over the years, talks which he'd attempted to infuse with some wisdom pertinent to the occasion. Many of these speeches were delivered at commencement ceremonies, but Alda also talked to historians at Monticello and to psychiatrists at Cornell. He spoke at a ceremony honoring Simon Wiesenthal. He delivered eulogies for Ozzie Davis and Peter Jennings and Anne Bancroft. He spoke over the grave of his grandchildren's dead rabbit.
Alda structures the book around excerpted passages from these speeches, but Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself is by no means wholly or even primarily a collection of excerpts. Rather, Alda uses the excerpts as writing prompts, wrapping stories from his life around them. In one chapter, for example, Alda excerpts passages from a talk he delivered at Emerson College in 1977 on the subject of living up to one's values. He seamlessly weaves a handful of stories around the quotes--the author being slapped as a four-year-old for off-color humor and upstaged by a quarterback a decade later; picket lines and cigarette ads and Bert Convy's heroics. As we saw in his first book, Alda has a smooth storytelling style that transports the reader. Once he begins on a reminiscence--traveling on the Orient Express, meeting his agent, biting his mother's watch--the pages turn themselves.
Insofar as they interrupt the flow of the narrative, Alda's excerpted speeches--if arguably the raison d'être of the book--are actually its weakest part. One feels less of a connection with the author when reading them, perhaps because we are not in fact their intended audience: he didn't write the speeches for us, after all, but for a specific audience on a specific occasion.
What, then, makes for a meaningful life? Alda has found his answer, and it's unlikely to surprise readers unless they're living the life of Lindsay Lohan. But arriving at the answer will surely not be the point for most of us. As in life, so with a good book: it's the going, not the getting there that's good.*
-- Debra Hamel
*Phrase borrowed from Harry Chapin's Greyhound.
on September 19, 2007
"Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself" is really an invitation to see how Alda's mind works; his philosophical outlook, what excites him, what he values, etc. His advice to his daughter, Eve, about the importance of making distinctions because "A peach is not its fuzz, a toad is not its warts, a person is not his or her crankiness" is advice from which we could all learn and grow. As to the one reviewer here who gave a negative review, from reading said review, it is obvious that this person got caught up in the minutia of the fuzz and failed to see this book for what it is: an exquisitely ripened peach.
In an excerpt from Alan Alda's commencement address at Eve's graduation, he talked about the need for people to question their "assumptions" because our assumptions are our windows through which we view the world...he also talked about the happiness found in existentialism because life is what you make of it. For those of you who have read the books of Barry Neil Kaufman, you will likely find a delightful synergy of outlook.
Most of one chapter is about Alda's fascination with Richard Feynman....the chapter is so intriguing that the next book I plan to read is about Richard Feynman. In the this book, you learn about Alan, but also about things that you didn't expect, like when Alan went in search of a greater understanding of Thomas Jefferson by talking to scientists in China. He reaches into the dark and pulls out something magnificent that nobody else would have found.
"Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself" starts you thinking about what you value and what excites you. As much as I loved "Never Have Your Dog Stuffed", I LOVE this new book even more! This book is clearly from Alan Alda's heart and it goes straight to the reader's heart...indeed, you may find your heart is much fuller; I did...I took the "random walk" and discovered an amazing peach! So, my advice to people considering reading this book is simply take a bite, embrace the richness of the flavor and delicious sensation as its juice spills in you and washes over you!
on October 8, 2007
"Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself" is a philosophy book. Yes, really. It is about meanings and values and thinking and learning from experience. True "meaning of life" stuff. Literally. But, be undaunted -- it is done with fun, humor, warmth and sensitivity. In plain English. It's full of fascinating stories drawn from the author's own life; a richly interesting life.
Alan Alda looks at his own writings from the past -- his speeches -- in which he has publicly declared his philosophies of life. He quotes from those speeches he has selected as representative of his quest for meaning in life. And he intersperses them with relevant vignettes from his experience. In that way, he examines his own values and the sources of those values.
He reveals himself as a lifelong learner, a man of insatiable curiosity engaged in an incessant search for knowledge and understanding -- especially self-knowledge -- and insight. He shows his penchant for rigorous research in his gathering facts and statistical support for his ideas and conclusions. It is easy to see how he might have wished to be a scientist at times, since he proceeds so much like one in preparing speeches. (And I'm sure his 11 years of interviewing scientists for Scientific American Frontiers contributed to his methodological and empirical approach.) He does what he has suggested scientists do. He takes complex information, ideas and analyses and converts them into stories, analogies and mental images that make them understandable and relevant to the average guy or gal.
So, he models for you how to approach the search for meaning and values in life and how to think about what you find in that search. All the while, he is entertaining you as well with his own search, his own findings and his own conclusions.
By the time I finished the book, I was sure that the people who are the author's friends are lucky folk. What a pleasure it must be to just have a chat with someone who takes such care with his thinking and such time to craft his thoughts into usable insights he shares without defense. Ah well, the rest of us have his book.
on September 12, 2007
Alan Alda is an extraordinarily engaging writer, with a direct, smart, deceptively "effortless" style that reminds me of Isaac Asimov. I greatly enjoyed this book, although not quite as much as his first memoir, for the technical writing reason I describe below. I can't wait for the next one!
One caution: do not be confused by the odd Publishers Weekly review which suggests he has abandoned his lifelong political and personal philosophy. ("While poking good-natured fun at some of his earlier rhetoric (the ravings of a naïve Hollywood liberal)..."). That simply does not describe this book. I was concerned by the PW comment prior to reading the book, yet I didn't see a single sentence that suggests Alda thinks his past views were naive "ravings" (?). He notes that some protests in which he participated in the 1960s had no impact, but that's a comment on tactics, not political values.
The slight dissatisfaction I had with this book was, I think, an inevitable outcome of Alda's idea of weaving in excerpts from (mostly very good) speeches he's given -- which is, of course, the central framing conceit for this book. It's simply in the nature of things that excerpted pieces are never quite as appealing as new material. The old material, however good, always reads as "seconds." And there's just a bit of let-down each time as you have to shift gears from the natural flow of the book to the different rhythm of the excerpt, then back again.
Fortunately, the excerpts woven into this narrative are jumping-off points and comprise a relatively small percent of the words, so this is a minor dissatisfaction and not a major one. And, despite the inherent drawbacks of this approach, Alda does a superb job trying to weave in these excerpts, explaining his thinking, creative process, and anxiety in writing the speeches in a fascinating "behind the scenes" way. He is such a skilled, hard-working writer that he actually pulls this off most, but not all, of the time.
The less successful, more generic speech excerpts (for me) are near the beginning of the book. They get better as the book proceeds, perhaps because he has gotten better over time at writing attention-getting, highly unusual, thoughtful speeches.
Perhaps Alda felt he had "already written" his autobiography and had to do something really different to justify a second book. While that may seem logical, there's really no rule that an author can only write one memoir. The notion of writing a second (or even a third or fourth) autobiography never stopped Frederick Douglass, Isaac Asimov, David Niven, Laurence Olivier, or Leonard Nimoy, to name a few "multi-memoirist" authors I've enjoyed.
To go back where I started, I loved Alda's first book, loved this one almost as much, and eagerly await his next. These are lasting contributions to any home bookshelf.
on January 27, 2008
Just a short note about Alan Alda's newest book; it's average. I adore Alan Alda and wish I could write something more glowing about this book, but it truly is a collection of speeches he has written and delivered along the way. Yes, you do get an occasional insight into his life, (and, that is the best part of the book) but it is only by way of introduction to an essay or speech he wants to lay out for you. As well, the speeches become redundant and somewhat conflicting as you get deeper into the book. I found myself thinking, "Oh, no, not another commencement address!" Just be prepared not to expect too much and you won't be disappointed. I still adore him...
on March 15, 2011
If anyone could ever be called a national treasure, I believe that it is Alan Alda who deserves the title. His second book, in which he reviews, analyzes and comments upon the speeches he's made, is a brilliant mixture of memoir, effective speaking how-to, philosophy, and academia. Being a writer and actor has allowed Alda to become both an expert on and an enthusiast of humanity and life. His book is not only deeply thought-provoking, enlightening, and heartening, but also full of truth (which is not the same thing as honesty). This is a book of the most brilliant, important advice for living. When I read a book, I like to dog-ear passages I like; looks like the whole thing is dog-eared. A brilliant, wonderful book on how to be a human being, reminds me of a philosophic Bill Bryson, and discusses the meaning of science, of work, of art, and even contains the meaning of life. And he's got it exactly right. Grade: A+
Alan Alda demonstrates his remarkably elastic, relational mind once again in THINGS I OVERHEARD WHILE TALKING TO MYSELF. He "welds" a full-size book onto a framework of commencement and other speeches he gave over the years, keeping to a loose theme of asking what makes life worth living. In sixteen chapters (each one a self-sufficient essay), he forays into 9/11, the value of science and reason, his relationship with his business manager, celebrity, the deaths of three famous people, time with his grandchildren, and quite a few other topics. At times, the theme meanders away to allow other ideas to take pride of place, and occasionally the transitions within the chapters lurch a bit. But in the main, it's a joy to read these thoughts of a man who is a born communicator.
Here's a favorite passage, "...I saw that this was a story of the fours seasons of friendship: spring, where everyone is fresh and attractive and new to one another; summer, where the glare of the sun begins to show everyone's blemishes; autumn, where the fig leaves finally fall and you see who they really are; and the winter of friendship, where you either drop them and start all over again with another springtime set of friends or take them as they are and huddle against the cold winds of aging."
And another, more cerebral one: "Over the centuries, like continental drift, the landmasses of science and the humanities, once united in an Eden called Pangaea, had separated and developed their own intellectual flora and fauna, becoming home to mutually alien species of thought. Where once those interested in humanity could mix freely with those interested in the rest of nature, now an ocean of strangeness separated us."
THINGS I OVERHEARD luxuriates in making unusual connections as it explores what makes life "good." Alda knows how to entertain and educate. He stimulates all the emotions like a talented piano player tickling the ivories. And he never forgets his humanity -- or ours.
on December 22, 2014
Who knew Alan Alda was a sensitive, profound writer? Not I. His books and his inherent expressed wisdom have truly impacted my life. He speaks of "getting inside the listener's head" when one is presenting; beseeches scientists to take a course on communication; and reminds doctors not to forget that their patients' "head bone is connected to their heart bone." I'm thrilled to say that in my work as a psychotherapist, he has taken my relational skills to another level.
on October 18, 2007
Many people will read this because of the author's celebrity. I think you should read it because it contains great wisdom, and inspiring insight. I have to admit that I'm a bit amazed by both the substance and style of this and Alan Alda's previous book about dog stuffing. I've always thought of him as a smart guy, but even so, I wasn't prepared for such a good book either time. I've even quoted from this new one extensively in advising a young philosophy professor today about the way to have an impact for good in the classroom.
Alda has learned things as a performer and as a human being that will help any of us in our own challenges.
A long time ago, the most practical philosophers having an impact on others were not professors in university classrooms, but genuinely accomplished people who wanted to understand more deeply what they had experienced in their lives, and then to pass on what they had learned to others. Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Cicero and many others fall into this category. Alan Alda is carrying on the tradition.
Do yourself a favor. Read this book.
on May 2, 2012
I have watched Alan Alda on Scientific American Frontiers and I really like his personality, so I decided to check out his book. The book is really well written, and the author is a very smart, thoughtful, and witty. Much of the book is centered around different speeches that he made at college graduation ceremonies or other events, and the philosophical methodology and thought processes that he used to write the speeches.
Alan is also very passionate about his acting career, and much of the book is also about how he views acting as an art form, and his thoughts on the deeper meanings in the relationships between actors and their audiences. I have very little interest in the philosophy of acting, so these portions of the book were not very interesting to me and I found myself getting bored and skipping paragraphs or pages from time to time. If I had even the slightest interest in acting or theater, this book would have been very good.
If you have interest in acting, then you will probably like this book, but if not then I suggest finding something else to read. I still like Alan Alda, but I think I'll stick to just watching him on the Scientific American Frontiers show.