Book Review: How to Live

After it occurred to Alford that older people had a wealth of life experiences to draw on during any decision making process, he decided to gather some of those insights before they were lost forever. While conducting interviews and writing this book, Alford’s mother, in her late seventies, surprised the family by deciding she’d had enough of her husband and initiated divorce proceedings. Her quote, “I have more stuff stored in my brain to make conclusions with. But I also have more scar tissue… We’ve misinterpreted Darwin. It’s not survival of the fittest. It’s survival of the most adaptable,” offered plenty to contemplate as Alford dealt with the fallout from her decision.

Although the purpose of this book was to glean wisdom from the elderly, it is more about Alford’s relationship with his parents. Harold Bloom, Edward Albee and Ram Dass are some of the more notable figures interviewed but remarkably, they offered little genuine wisdom, tending to simply give lip service to well-worn platitudes. The real gems in this book come from the unknown, “average” person trying to get by. These include Katrina survivor Althea Washington who lost everything including her husband, home and the trappings of a lifetime. Instead of wallowing in understandable misery she continues to move forward with the outlook “Pity parties are free, but they cost you emotion.”

This is a light, easy read that is long on entertainment and rather short on any groundbreaking insights and a departure from Alford’s other work. The way he twines his parents story throughout the other interviews add a warm personal touch.

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