Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Being both sides of the dialog

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, essays

Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." That's a rather negative way of saying, "Pay attention." Alan Alda says it even better, summing up his new book: "Notice it." A one-word sentence (the next-to-last, but it would be better placed as the last) closes Alda's Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself: "Notice."

I found it interesting, having reviewed a book compiled from askphilosophers.org, to find one a popular cultural figure pondering the same questions. Alda's title refers to the source material. He is a sought-after public speaker, having spoken, for example, as the commencement speaker at all three of his daughters' graduation ceremonies. He realized recently that in all these talks, "...I was really talking to myself." Fortunately, unlike many celebrities, he has something to say.

He has not really had a quest for the "meaning of life." His passion has been enjoying it, and that not even in a focused way. He loves a lot of things--the animal pleasures, of course: wine, woman (one woman, Arlene), and song...and dance and acting; but also the heady pleasures of writing a script or a speech (on which he works harder than on anything else); though he had a taste for science, he bypassed a science education for the theater, so he instead grabbed the chance to interview scientists and see some of their work first hand for Scientific American Frontiers, for eleven years.

In the sixteen essays that make up the book we find glimpses of many people we've seen only on the surface, if at all. The actress Anne Bancroft, who underneath, as one who played with Alda's grandchildren, was Anna Maria Louisa Italiano from the Bronx, an amazing woman, perhaps the only one who could keep up with husband Mel Brooks. Martin Bregman, who became his agent: a complex, fun, passionate man, yet one who frequently hid his polio-ravaged legs behind a large desk; in any way that Alda did not make himself, Bregman made him. Yuan Long Ping, inventor of rice that will crossbreed and thus a hero of Chinese agriculture, who taught Alda more about Thomas Jefferson than any book he'd read...he did it by living a Jeffersonian life, with its inherent risks in Maoist China.

Alan Alda is seventy now. Now that he has a couple of books under his belt, I do hope he writes more, much more.

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