Saturday, June 30, 2012

BC2012: How to Live by Henry Alford

This book bears the lengthy subtitle "A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth)." Alford's quest for wisdom leads him through a series of interviews with senior citizens as well as a review of historical writing on wisdom. Alford's interview with his stepfather unexpectedly triggers the end of his mother's 23-year marriage, and this book becomes more of a family memoir than I expected.

Overall, I guess I enjoyed it enough. It held my interest most of the time. Most of Alford's interview subjects, ranging from minor celebrities like Granny D and Ram Dass* to "ordinary" people, are insightful and entertaining. The family drama that unfolds during the writing of the book is an amusing diversion with moments of poignancy.

But then again, I sometimes found myself thinking Enough about your family; get back to the interviews already. His tangential musings, such as his tediously documented quest for aphorisms, almost lost me a few times (at such moments, BC2012 really pushes me to keep reading to the finish). In the end, I felt like I didn't get the book promised by the title. How to Live could be required reading for writing students as an example of how an author can be his own worst enemy when he lets himself get in the way of a good story. Instead of drawing more out of the interview subjects, Alford writes too much about his own feelings and reactions during the interviews (I expected the book to be about their wisdom, not his). And although the book is truthfully labeled as a memoir, it would have been better without so much about Alford.

* This is the second book I've read this year to include a chapter featuring Ram Dass, the first being Paul Krassner's Murder at the Conspiracy Convention.

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