Henry Alford hangs out with geezers-and loves it.
Mon Dec 22 2008
Photograph: John Woo
Halfway through his interview with TONY, Henry Alford asks, “What would you have changed about my book?”
This seems like a funny question, since How To Live—the author’s thoughtful nonfiction book about what the young can learn from old people—has already gone to press. Why solicit criticism now? The reviews will be coming out soon enough. But Alford listens intently to my feedback, asking for specifics about my thoughts on his latest publication, and later about my life in general.
Alford, it becomes clear, likes asking questions, which is a good thing, since his book involved interviews and conversations with more than 200 elderly Americans. The author explains that he’s fascinated by old folks—by the depth of their experience and knowledge, by the many stories they have to tell. (Hey, just like us! Check out “Old schooled” on page 6.) While others seem mesmerized by infants, Alford would rather hang out with an octogenarian any day. “I am to old people as most people are to babies,” the author says. “Babies are total zeros for me. Babies should get a job.”
Sitting on an antique settee in his West Village walkup, the 46-year-old writer definitely seems like someone your grandmother would like. He takes coats, offers refreshments and laughs generously. He answers questions contemplatively, staring alternately at the floor or ceiling, comfortable with long pauses and silences.
But Alford is also profoundly, wonderfully goofy, as evidenced by much of his earlier work, mainly stunt articles in which he put himself in absurd situations—walking through the streets of Manhattan in pajamas, for instance, or cooking a gourmet meal solely with items from a 99-cent store.
A contributor to The New Yorker and Vanity Fair and the author of two books (Municipal Bondage and Big Kiss), Alford is enormously entertaining and frequently hilarious—such as the moment documented in the New York Times when the pajama-clad author informs a security guard at the New York Stock Exchange that he’s considering getting a job on Wall Street (“But I’m not sure I have the drive for it,” he adds).
Although How to Live still has Alford’s warm, droll voice, it’s a very different kind of book, a serious quest to find and define wisdom by speaking to people over 70. During the 20th century, he explains, three decades were added to the average human life expectancy, but most young people aren’t reaping the benefits of their elders’ advice. “There is an old African saying that the death of an old person is like the burning of a library, and I completely agree with that,” Alford says. “I think that old people are these repositories of information and knowledge. Unfortunately, the more technically advanced we become, the less we care about old people.”
So Alford decided to stamp his library card, stepping out of the spotlight of his typically self-conscious journalism and letting his subjects do the talking. Although he interviews several famous people like Phyllis Diller, Harold Bloom and Edward Albee, the book’s most sagacious tidbits tend to come from people who don’t have publicists. Take Charlotte Krause Prozan, whom Alford meets on a cruise hosted by The Nation magazine, explaining why she so vehemently protests the Iraq War: “If my grandkids ask me, 'What did you do about it?’ I’ll have an answer. If the Germans opposed Hitler, they’d be shot. But no one’s going to shoot me.” Or Althea Washington, a retired schoolteacher who lost her home and her husband in Hurricane Katrina. About her 75th birthday, Washington says, “It was quiet. It was lovely. A little lonely. I could have gone to my daughter. But there comes a time in your life when you just want to be still, you just want to be reflective. I just want to sit in my chair and say, It’s all right. It really is all right.”
Or Alford’s mother, who, at 80, decided to divorce Alford’s stepfather after living with him for 31 years. She made the announcement shortly after Alford began writing the book, and he knew immediately that he wanted to include her story. “As she has aged, she has become more and more sure of herself, and this bizarre situation was a real litmus test for that theory. She was making a lot of smart decisions very quickly.”
Alford says that that chronicling these hard-won insights has made him feel calmer about growing older and even about dying. But does he feel wiser? He laughs, and points out that he still makes some bad decisions. “Anecdotal evidence would suggest that I like to put my hand in the fire,” he says. Making mistakes, of course, is not always a bad thing, since this is how one can become wise. “I think it takes years to accumulate the kind of sagacity my subjects have. I’m not there yet.”
How to Live (Twelve, $23.99) is out now. Alford reads Jan 8 at Barnes & Noble Upper West Side.
Buy How to Live now on BN.com
Variations on a theme: Books about old people»
Even though there aren’t many senior citizens in contemporary lit, there are still a handful of amazing books about them—and a couple of them aren’t even cranks! Here’s a list of our favorites.