How to live

There is a lot you can learn from living with old people. So says author Henry Alford

The Knowledge

Half way through his interview with Time Out, 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 non-fiction 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.

Sitting on an antique settee in his New York home, 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 pyjamas, 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 pyjama-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 stepped out of the spot-light of his typically self-conscious journalism and let his subjects do the talking. Although he interviews several famous people like Phyllis Diller, Harold Bloom and Edward Albee, the book’s most sagacious titbits 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,’ he says. ‘She was making a lot of smart decisions very quickly.’

Alford says 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 concedes. 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, published byTwelve, is available to order at Magrudy’s from February 5, for Dhs110

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