How can an actor say anything new about Thomas Jefferson to a roomful of scholars at Jefferson's home at Monticello? According to legendary actor and writer Alan Alda, you do it not by regurgitating the words of previous historians, several of whom might actually be in the room, but by recounting the story of a biologist who transformed rice production in China, much as Jefferson had done in America.
Throughout his career, Alda's standing as one of the most articulate and insightful celebrities has given him the opportunity to deliver many commencement speeches, keynote addresses, and even eulogies. Now, he has compiled many of these speeches in his new book, Things I Learned While Talking to Myself, which acts as a companion to his 2006 memoir, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed.
While addressing the graduated class at Caltech one year, Alda used his experience in portraying the late Caltech professor Richard Feynman to implore the students to share their love of science with the world.
"Tell us frankly how you got there," he writes. "If you got there by many twists and turns and blind alley, don't leave that out. We love a detective story….Most scientists do leave that out…and it doesn't sound like a human thing they've done. It separates us from the process."
Alda wisely heeds his own advice in the book. He begins each chapter by telling a story, either about his family, professional career, friends, or political activism. Then he describes how that anecdote relates to a speech he was asked to give, and how he overcame the challenges involved. Then he provides excerpts from the speech, breaking in when necessary to talk about what he learned from the experience.
Had the book been solely a collection of the transcripts of the addresses, the book would be an exercise in self-indulgency. Instead, he comes across in a manner very much in line with his persona as a devoted family man whose spare time is devoted to the pursuit of knowledge. He also cuts the inherent pretension in any "life lessons" book with a conversational tone (you can hear Alda's trademark inflections as they read) and plenty of self-deprecating humor.
As a lifelong M*A*S*H freak, I've often suspected that Alan Alda, through his Hawkeye Pierce character, has been inside my head to give me guidance throughout my life. Now, with Things I Overheard While Talking To Myself, that becomes one step closer to reality.