How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth)

Though the work of a reviewer is certainly not to judge the book by its cover, in the case of How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth), it is easy to get hung up on the adorable image of a wrinkly Sharpei, a dog that only exhibits such rolls of flesh in puppyhood. Perhaps an indication of the contradictory nature of such a quest? Henry Alford, who penned two previous investigations rife with wry humor — Big Kiss: One Actor’s Desperate Attempt to Claw His Way to the Top and Municipal Bondage: One Man’s Anxiety-Producing Adventures in the Big City — injects his own brand of levity into the larger philosophical challenge of defining wisdom by delving into the experiences of elders. What he discovers is indeed contradictory at times but unexpected and life-altering, too. Like any journey of a thousand miles, he begins with the first step: compiling a list of aging icons to interview. While traveling between such disparate locales as Granny D’s humble abode in New Hampshire and the Hawaiian paradise of Ram Dass, Alford has plenty of time to contemplate another elder situation, the end of his mother’s 36-year marriage. Delving into Ecclesiastes and the words of Confucius, Buddha, and Socrates, and combing deathbed confessionals and famous quotations, Alford is guided through his own conflicting emotions about aging. Along the way his narrative, replete with laser-like observations and witty banter, is so thoroughly captivating that the answer to the title question becomes less important than the quest. It’s a profound revelation that comes through each person’s life story — which, we come to understand, is exactly the point.