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How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth) Hardcover – January 2, 2009

3.6 out of 5 stars 31 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Alford (Big Kiss) recognizes that the elderly have been through more in their lives than the rest of us, and figures it might be a good idea to talk to some of them and see if they have any meaningful advice to impart. This plan sets off a prolonged meditation: what is wisdom, anyway? Some of his interview subjects are famous, like playwright Edward Albee or literary critic Harold Bloom—but it's the less recognized figures who consistently provide Alford with the most evocative source material, like the retired schoolteacher who lost her husband, her home and all her possessions in Hurricane Katrina but refuses to feel sorry for herself. The search is not all rosy: shortly after , Alford's interview with his stepfather, he loses his sobriety and the author becomes a sideline observer as his mother initiates divorce proceedings and moves into a retirement home. Such scenarios depart from the laugh-out-loud stories for which Alford is best known, but there are still enough moments of rich humor, like the guided tour of Sylvia Miles's cluttered apartment, for longtime fans of Alford. (Jan. 2)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

"A bit David Sedaris, a bit Charles Grodin" (Cleveland Plain Dealer), with a little Studs Terkel and Mitch Albom (Tuesdays with Morrie) thrown in for good measure, Alford, when he's on, has all the critics in stitches. They extol his keen wit and ability to keep a somber subject lighthearted. Drawing on such a wide range of source material has its benefits and drawbacks: Alford covers a lot of ground, but the result is, for some reviewers, a narrative that's a little too slack and uninspired. Whether it's his treatment of his mother's marriage or a rumination on his aging cat's wisdom, some things just seem out of place. Then again, maybe when we're older, we'll come back to How to Live, and it will all make perfect sense.
Copyright 2009 Bookmarks Publishing LLC
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Twelve; 1 edition (January 2, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0446196037
  • ISBN-13: 978-0446196031
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,543,379 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By David M. Giltinan on January 11, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A more accurate title for this book would be "Growing Old Gracefully", as it's obvious that the question Alford is really interested in is "How should we come to terms with our own mortality?" He decides the best way to find out is to ask a bunch of elderly people, then try to distil key life lessons from the resulting conversations. Framing this process as a "search for wisdom" doesn't help particularly, and occasionally causes him to get sidetracked into some fairly unproductive academic discussions. It's not surprising that encouraging people to talk about their own lives works far better than asking them about "wisdom" in the abstract, an approach which, predictably, yields mostly just bland generalities.

As a general rule, his success is inversely proportional to the fame of the interviewee. Conversations with Harold Bloom* and Edward Albee lead to unhelpful pseudo-profundities like "wisdom is a perfection that can either absorb or destroy us", and pointless exchanges about the dictionary definition of "wisdom". A series of meetings with actress Sylvia Miles reveal little more than her apparently bottomless self-infatuation. The most interesting thing that is gleaned from self-styled guru Ram Dass's pontification on "wisdom" and "spirituality" is his admission that he doesn't plan to attend his own brother's funeral. This, quite rightly, bothers Alford, though he later suggests that Dass is redeemed by the calm acceptance he displays in the aftermath of a disabling stroke. It's unclear whether this reflects Alford's innate generosity of spirit, or an unwillingness to admit to himself how worthless his pilgrimage to meet with Dass has been.
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Format: Hardcover
If you want to read the author's musings on wisdom, read this book. If you want to hear much from old people, better talk to some old people yourself.
It's a diary about the time the author spent collecting information for a book about the wisdom of old people. Besides his mother, the old people are almost a side bar. Which is too bad, b/c it seems there may have been a lot more from all those clever people, who granted him an interview, to share with the reader. Somehow his cat makes a major appearance in the story, too. Surely other readers are also scratching their heads about that one.
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Format: Hardcover
The author decides to set out on a quest... to not only search for wisdom... but to try to get a true definition of what wisdom really is... from people who have truly had the opportunity to acquire life's experiences... our elderly. The wide ranging paths that the author travels... leads to many things... including conundrums... such as... sometimes our greatest strengths... are usually our greatest liabilities. The reader also receives interesting bits of historical data... such as... "Benjamin Franklin helped frame the U.S. Constitution at eighty-one; Golda Meir assumed leadership of Israel at seventy, and Nelson Mandela assumed leadership of South Africa at seventy-six." We also get a heavy dose of the author's elderly Mother's decision to move out and divorce his stepfather. In fact there are more pages in this book dedicated to his Mother's decision... and the resultant affects on her and their family... than any other individual subject in the book. We learn that his Mom makes decisions like a LASER-BEAM... "She doesn't cut to the chase; she starts at the chase." But my decision to purchase this book was not based on the knowledge... nor... the assumption... that so much time would be spent on this one topic.

The author obviously spent a lot of time and energy in background research... and also... in the effort of attempting to arrange interviews with some hard to pin down elderly subjects. One such subject Eugene Loh... was nauseating to read about. Eugene is an "eighty-seven-year-old retired aerospace engineer who left Shanghai to come to the United States to graduate school; he has five science degrees, including ones from Cal Tech, Purdue, and Stanford." As the author ruminates what it was like watching AND SHARING all the food that Eugene takes out of trash cans...
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Format: Paperback
To put it in a nutshell, this book was a grand disappointment. I'm in my late twenties, and I enjoy hearing from and about older people. I'm also intrigued with wisdom and learning from the mistakes of others. This book seemed like a perfect read for me, but I was woefully mistaken.

The book is not about the wisdom of elders. It's about the author and his thoughts on wisdom and the individuals he interviewed. I wanted to know about the older people, not Henry Alford. Also, his sexual orientation, his cat, and other irrelevant subjects are present in heavy doses. I would've ignored those things and pressed on, had there been a clear point being made. There wasn't.

Overall, it just seemed tacky, insensitive, and a complete waste of time. I can't remember the last time I read a book that actually moved me to go write a negative review. I'm making an exception to save others from the same fate. Keep looking, there are too many good reads available to bother with this book.
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