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How to Live

New Yorker contributor Henry Alford hopes to uncover wisdom by talking with the elderly.

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When New Yorker contributor Henry Alford told a 9-year-old friend that he was interviewing old people to tap into their wisdom, she was dubious. “ ‘They may not have much to say,’ she counseled, before glibly adding, ‘But good luck with that!’ ”

Her youthful skepticism was prescient, indeed. If Alford had hoped that the senior citizens he canvassed would drop pearls of life wisdom into his tape recorder, it didn’t exactly work out that way.

Alford talked with Phyllis Diller, Harold Bloom, and Edward Albee. He met with an 87-year-old retired aerospace engineer, a noted aphorist, and an 86-year-old Japanese-American academic who had been interned during World War II.

The result is How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People, an uneven yet wryly humorous read that ultimately delivers rewards.

Alford interviews, trolls the Bible and Socrates, and solicits aphorisms from seniors. The thoughts of the interviewees are not always inspired and there are moments when – despite Alford’s moxie and sly humor – the process drags.

Certain core elements of wisdom do, however, finally emerge: things like detachment from ego, a questioning mind-set, an interest in the common good.

Then, among the less radiant encounters, appear a few gems of human experience, such as the buoyancy of spiritual teacher Ram Dass, who embraces life in a wheelchair with joy, and the astonishing grace of Althea Washington, a retired teacher who lost her husband and all worldly goods in Katrina, yet kept a “blazing smile” that “could light a small country.”

“How to Live” also pays tribute to resilience, a quality embodied by Alford’s mother and stepfather, whose story, as they divorce after 36 years of marriage, is interwoven throughout the book.

But perhaps Alford’s most potent discovery is that old people are not so different from young. Their wisdom is liberally mixed with “unwisdom,” and yet they occasionally astound with flashes of humor, courage, and grace.

And at any age, it seems, it is the most fortunate – Alford’s mother and his elderly cat, for instance – who retain the special blessing of being able to inspire affection.

 

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