When Henry Alford tells scholar Harold Bloom that he is writing a book on wisdom, Bloom, who is approaching 80, calls it "a dark topic. A very dark topic." But "How to Live: A Search for Wisdom From Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth)" is anything but dark. In fact, the story of Alford's search for wisdom is awash in wry humor and poignant moments. Bloom surprises Alford with his tenderness, claiming that with age he has gained "a healthier respect and affection for my wife. ... Next May will be our 50th anniversary."
Alford interviews dozens of men and women over 70 -- from a fading starlet (Sylvia Miles) to a spiritual icon (Ram Dass), from an award-winning playwright (Edward Albee), to a victim of Katrina (retired teacher Althea Washington) -- looking for the connective tissue that ties old age with wisdom.
Along the way, he shares magical moments where the connections he makes lead him not only to revelations about life's big questions, but to an expanded notion of friendship.
Interlaced throughout is the story of Alford's 79-year-old mother, who decides to leave her husband just as Alford begins to research this book. The chapters devoted to his mother's new start late in life are among the liveliest and most enjoyable. Case in point: After the divorce, his mother relocates to a retirement community in North Carolina to be near his sister. When Alford asks how she is settling in, she deadpans, "This is the Land of Unfinished Sentences. Down here, I'm Mensa."