Alda Lets Us Eavesdrop on His Words of Wisdom

Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself by Alan Alda

I'm going to commit the cardinal sin of book reviewing. I'm going to tell you the ending.

In Alan Alda's latest book, he writes about his search for the meaning of life. In each chapter he shares a different aspect of that search and expounds upon it in a wise and thoughtful manner.

At the end of the book, he says that life's meaning all comes down to one thing. Here's your spoiler: the meaning of life is Bosco's belly.

Now granted, Alda does offer more than just Bosco's belly, perhaps because he knows you'd rather buy a book than a sticky note or bumper sticker with a single nugget of wisdom. His readers are the beneficiaries of that choice, as the book's pages are soaked with an approachable, down-to-earth eloquence that is at the same time thought-provoking and as comforting as a warm towel fresh out of the dryer.

Alda's Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself offers sound advice and reflections on a lifetime of lessons learned, but it distinguishes itself from self-help books by its lack of proscription. Alda describes his experience without insisting that they be the same for all his readers. He offers advice based on his interactions with life, but doesn't guarantee the results of following them.

The book defies an easy classification into genre — as most good books do. It flirts with being a memoir as Alda takes his readers through his memories and shares meaningful moments from his life. However he spurns a chronological treatment or even a cataloging of major life events and instead uses his memories to provide vivid coloring to the ideas that he shares about life's meaning.

Alda organizes the books around speeches that he's given throughout his life — speeches at commencement ceremonies, dedications, funerals, and other occasions. He doesn't always provide the entire transcript, but he does provide those highlights that he found especially meaningful. He also frames each speech with a context for why the speech was given, why it was of particular meaning to him and what sort of life experiences contributed to the things he said.

Throughout each chapter is a delightful recurring theme of self-doubt. Every time he agrees to give a speech, he has his moments of panic and questions what he was thinking by taking on this task. It will be easy for readers to identify with the terror that he shares as each time he doubts whether he is up to the task an each time proves that he was the exact right person for the job.

Perhaps one of the most compelling parts of the book is its ability to encourage the reader to reflect and to play with important ideas. I found myself awake at night after the lights went out, entertaining the brain worms wiggling in my mind from his speeches. I was especially taken with his speech on celebrity and its discontents and the final commencement address in which he shares with graduates the three most important things he learned in life. His ideas helped me underscore things in my own life that bring me joy and contentment. It wasn't that his words illuminated a new way for me to live my life, rather they provided reassurance that I am richly blessed. Alda reveals that more important than any sort of celebrity is that he has found something he loves to do, people that he loves to be with, and that he is able to get up every day and do the things he loves and spend time with people he's spent a lifetime loving. Those are richer blessings than any fame or celebrity.

What's also delightful about this book is that Alda takes us on a journey with him. He recognizes that the search for meaning is life is a search, not a bumper sticker. Learning is as important as knowledge.

So, who is Bosco and why is his belly the meaning of life? For that answer, you'll have to read the book yourself.

-- B. Redman