I’ve just been reading Alan Alda’s Never Have Your Dog Stuffed. I usually don’t read a lot of memoirs, let alone celebrity memoirs, and found myself liking it far more than I anticipated. That sounds like a backhanded compliment, but I had no idea I was going to be so interested in Alan Alda’s life, or empathize with so many aspects of his somewhat chaotic upbringing with a mentally ill parent. That by itself is still a taboo topic in our culture, and Alda handles it with maturity, sensitivity, and grace. Also refreshingly and perhaps intentionally in contrast to most reader’s expectations, he does not discuss MASH (his hit show) all that much, allowing us to get a sense of his development not only as an actor, but as a person.
I picked up the book from my overflowing, backlogged shelves, and though I don’t remember how the book came into my possession, I’m glad I’m giving it a chance between my very intense spring cleaning sessions. What I particularly like about the book is that it is clear Alda wrote it himself (which cannot be said of all celebrity tomes), with a consistent voice, giving it a very authentic feel—it does not feel ghostwritten or an “as told to,” – and it develops thematically like a novel. It dances between certain themes and life phases, with a poetic spirit refreshing for autobiography; he’s not just telling a collection of stories about his life, but arranging them in a way to make sense of how he lived.
I appreciate that Alda took the time to conscientiously write clear and sincere prose about his triumphs and challenges, and was modest, humble even, in the process. Through this book, I also came to know Alda’s commitment to the craft of writing, having not known previously that he wrote skits, screenplays, and scripts for at least one TV pilot and a number of MASH episodes. In fact, because I enjoyed the book so much, I was wondering what else BookLamp might suggest to me, so I punched it in, and began compiling a booklist from the offerings, hoping to find books from other notable creative or artistic people that are also well-written, thoughtful, not too self-promoting, and (hopefully) on the funny side.
To me, finding an interesting book is half about understanding what I’m interested in, and half about understanding what I am not interested in. I trust BookLamp to find me books that are relevant to what I am reading, but that’s true for different parts of the book, some of which I’m more interested in than others.
For example, from books similar to Never Have Your Dog Stuffed and from Alda’s other book, Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself (which I now intend to read because of the amusing and intimate tone he established in his first memoir), came additional celebrity memoirs about Marlon Brando and Shirley MacClaine; neither of those caught my interest. One of the more unexpected suggestions is I Do, Now What? by Bill Rancic and Giuliana Rancic, aka “Bill & Guiliana” of the reality TV world. That’s about a million miles away from anything Alda had to do with, except he does spend a fair portion of his text discussing how show business affected his loving marriage to his wife, Arlene. That’s also not what draws me, really. I’m not personally an actor, so I pass over other understandable suggestions, like Auditioning by Joanna Merlin; discussion of the acting craft isn’t my area of interest.
But just as BookLamp can identify books based on the obvious threads, such as acting, it also suggests books based on the more subtle threads that I am interested in. I added Bossypants by Tina Fey to my list, as well as Official Book Club Selection by Kathy Griffin, Backing Into Forward by Jules Feiffer (which seems like a particularly good suggestion), and Letters to a Young Artist by Anna Deavere Smith (like Auditioning, a book to inspire and motivate budding performers, and focused on craft). Finally, a noteworthy but surprising suggestion, The Book of Understanding by Osho.
The Book of Understanding is particularly interesting to me.
Alda is a very intellectually curious man who decided from an early age to embark on a lifelong journey of self-education to make up for his sporadic formal schooling, a result of his father also being in show business. From BookLamp’s description, The Book of Understanding sounds like an approachable title that tries to take apart some of the same “Big Questions” that all of us deal with, such as discovering the world and truly knowing oneself, which Alda discussed in how his relationship to religion changed over time, and how he became interested in understanding science.
I truly valued this recommendation because it showed an understanding of the intellectual hunger and introspection that drove Alda to take certain projects over others, altering his career and life path. I realized that my own interest in his work is not his celebrity or his acting, but other aspects of his journey that were subtly articulated.
For the curious, Alda is also on the advisory board of The Center for Communicating Science based out of Stony Brook University, itself an interdisciplinary endeavor trying to bridge the arts and language with science, to achieve – among other goals – better popular understanding of scientific concepts (http://www.centerforcommunicatingscience.org/). I liked how BookLamp was able to use its knowledge culled from the inner workings of the text itself in order to generate a recommendation crossing disciplinary and genre lines.
And clicking on Osho’s book led to a completely different direction, that of more overt self-help and spiritual titles, which I have also been known to partake in. I decided not to get too carried away in that direction today.
So I’m curious, dear reader, to know what your adventures have been, and where your results have taken you. What unexpected things have you found from looking around? What’s been screwy and what’s been spot-on? Leave some breadcrumbs for us in the comments, and try someone else’s path too, and see what makes your eyes light up, and where you go…