People always ask me if I had "personal reasons" for writing a book about the wisdom of old people. I did not. At first. But—bizarrely—as soon as I started writing, I stumbled onto something far more personal than I would have ever thought imaginable.
The book started as an idea. Namely, that human beings are one of the few species that lives long after the age at which weprocreate. Why would Mother Nature have it thus? I think it’s because old folks serve—or have, until the middle part of the last century or so—as the keepers of wisdom in society; as an old African saying runs, "The death of an old person is like the burning of a library." And recent medical evidence supports this theory, too: though we experience a five percent or so decrease in brain weight and volume for each decade we live past 40, the actual number of brain cells decreases only marginally. Yes, we may endure much memory loss when we age, but our ability to assimilate information and learn from the experience doesn’t change much. Author Photo
Armed with this information, I set off on a quest to interview fascinating people over the age of 70. Some had done notable things—like walk across the country in support of campaign finance reform, or save thousands of tribe members’ lives by predicting the oncoming tsunami. Some were famous—like Phyllis Diller and Edward Albee and Harold Bloom and Ram Dass. Some were winningly eccentric—like the retired aerospace engineer who harvests much of his diet out of Dumpsters, or the Lutheran pastor who claims napping is a kind of prayer.
And then, suddenly, my quest got deeply personal when I decided to interview the two older people I know best—my mother and stepfather. Shortly after my interview with my stepfather, he overdosed on sleeping pills, whereupon my mother, furious that he was breaking his commitment to sobriety, threw him out of the house, divorced him and moved 580 miles away. Because both parties were willing to have me tag along during this painful rupture in their 31-year union, I did. Watching my mother make a series of difficult—and wise—decisions ended up being the throughline for my quest and my book.
Because wisdom is such an amorphous (and centuries-old) concept, writing a book about it is like trying to sculpt with mashed potatoes. So, early on, I give the reader a brief guide to wisdom literature over the ages (from the Book of Job all the way up to the quotations on the paper cups at Starbuck’s), and cite the five qualities that I think are essential to being wise: reciprocity, doubt, non-attachment, social conscience and discretion. I also try to provide some context by looking at some of the startling commonalities in the late-in-life works of writers as disparate as Graham Greene, William Burroughs and T.S. Eliot. A chapter on famous last words suggests that, at the end of life, we are more ourselves than ever—like the death row prisoner whose last meal request included low-fat salad dressing.
I’ve sometimes described the book to people as "a family memoir meets Studs Terkel," which seems pretty accurate, though it doesn’t reflect the fact that my background—former staff writer for Spy, current contributor of humor to Vanity Fair and the New Yorker—is as a humorist. Previously, when people asked if, given its title, How to Live is self-help, I would become flushed and slightly irritable, like a country store clerk who has lost his spectacles in the barley. But with time, I have mellowed. I’ve realized that, like many people, I’m always looking to put my life under the stewardship of metaphor—to find some kind of organizing principle that doesn’t come from the New Age movement or organized religion. Writing How to Live made me realize that I find this stewardship in biography, that I find it from talking to people or reading about them. For me, to learn about another person’s life—to learn why and how they did what they did—is to be simultaneously humbled and buoyed up. Old folks are the people on Earth who’ve lived the most, thus they stand to inspire the most humbling and buoying up. So now when people ask me if How to Live is self-help, I tell them, "Help yourself."
Humorist Henry Alford tackles a serious subject in his latest book, How To Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People.