What I’ve Been Up To

Here is some recent stuff that has occupied my datebook and cerebellum. Apologies for the sloth-like way in which I update this site; as a closet exhibitionist, my usual m.o. seems to be to try to get your attention, but never to be caught trying to do so. Which typically translates to: do nothing. A winning strategy!

Here I am on the public radio show Q discussing whether or not the fistbump should replace the traditional handshake, as certain academics and scientists (and President Obama?) advocate.

I spent a week on a working farm in Umbria, where I had a scarefying episode with pig transport.

In the column I write each month in the New York Times about manners, I’ve addressed how celebrities feud differently than they used to , and about how easy it is today unintentionally to come across as “cybercreepy.”

I joined Toastmasters to hone my public speaking skills.

I reviewed an anthology of Garrison Keillor’s work for the New York Times Book Review.

 

“Would It Kill You…?”

In a vivid display of bad manners, I now present some reactions to my new book, “Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That?: A Modern Guide to Manners.” Apparently the book is out in paperback and available for purchase.

“A brilliant primer on gracious living” (VanityFair.com)

“Mr. Alford is very funny in describing his conversion from passive recipient of bad behavior to active if subtle scold” (New York Times)

“Wickedly witty” (Publisher’s Weekly, starred review)

“A nearly always charming account” (Boston Globe)

“Pitch perfect…will keep manners mavens in stitches” (Library Journal)

“Amuses as it informs” (New York Times Book Review)

“Alford is a charming writer, who seems able to spin delightful stuff from whatever straw he happens to stumble across” (Salon.com)

“Alford weds the inspired lunacy of David Sedaris to the philosophic enquiry of “The Ethicist” column in the New York Times” (Whole Living)

“Extremely entertaining” (BookPage)

“Seriously entertaining” (Cleveland Plain Dealer)

“A writer as cheekily charming as he is helpful” (Oprah magazine)

“A valuable premise of the book is manners and etiquette aren’t neccessarily the same…[Alford's] self-effacing tone and dry sense of humor help to unify” (Washington Post)

“Alford is a razory-wicked fun guy to be around, and each of his stories are like those ‘tiny acts of grace’ brightening your day” (Kirkus Reviews)

 

Recent Doings

Here is some stuff I’ve been writing for the New York Times and recording for public radio in the past 6 months or so. Click on the description and it will take you to the link.

- I joined the nation’s oldest collegiate acapella group, the Whiffenpoofs.

- My employee, Ryan Haney, and I travel to Medellin, Colombia, where we hoped to have our office Christmas party.

- I took the messiest person I know (comedian Dave Hill) to an art show, all of whose pieces were made of dirt and smog.

- I took the most math-deficient person I know (myself) to New York City’s new Math Museum.

- I also started writing a monthly column about manners for the New York Times. Topics have included: people who are self-appointed manners cops; people who are online “humblebraggers”; whether or not it’s kosher to Google someone before you meet him; the etiquette of marijuana consumption; social kissing.

 

Times review!

The New York Times ran this review of “Would It Kill You To Stop Doing That?” on Wednesday.

 

Salon’s review of “Would It Kill You To Stop Doing That?”

I’m delighted that Salon.com’s razor-keen book critic Laura Miller even knows that I exist, let alone that she has read my last two books. Her recent reveiw of “Would It Kill You To Stop Doing That?” (which is here) is typically clear-eyed, erudite, and well-observed. She takes exception, it seems, to a game I play called “Touch the Waiter,” but I am man enough to withstand her opprobium on this front. Not everyone’s a toucher.

 

Book launch!

I’m honored to have my upcoming book about manners, “Would It Kill You To Stop Doing That?,” excerpted in the new issue of Vanity Fair. Look for Lady Gaga on the cover, then head for the middle of the issue.

I’ll  link to this puppy once it’s online, but for the moment I am puppyless.

 

Small Plates

In my personal Hell, I am forced to watch a woman on a fast-moving vehicle apply eyeliner, while a waiter repeatedly explains the phrase “small plates” to me.

 Here’s half of that scenario, from yesterday’s New York Times.

“Enjoy.”

 

First Review of New Book

So, the two big pre-publication reviews that a book is likely to get are those from Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. I’ve just received a review from the latter, for my book about manners that will come out in January. The funny thing about Kirkus reviews is that they always close with a single sentence, pulled out from the preceding paragraph, that is what I call the blammo sentence. Meaning that, if the preceding 300 word-long review is marked by simmering disappointment, then the blammo sentence will be an outright dismissal, a cannon volley, a thunderclap.

So you can imagine my relief when, after a couple of hundred words bearing phrases like “highly idiosyncratic” and “highly subjective”, the blammo sentence below was actually a nice blammo—a dollop of whipped cream, a bit of tongue.

KIRKUS REVIEW:  Alford (How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth), 2009, etc.) embarks on an idiosyncratic excursion into the land of civility. Manners became of interest to the author when he came across a comment by Edmund Burke that manners were more important than laws, and realized how true that was for him. Each day, his life had “been far more affected by the small indignities, or the tiny acts of grace, than by any piece of governmental legislation.” A book project was born: “I decided to study these tiny-but-huge things: to read about them, and travel in their name…to hold up a magnifying glass to unattractive habits that I stumble upon, be they my own or others’.” In his highly subjective, modestly twisted, rudeness-barely-checked way, Alford engages random aspects of manners. He commiserates with readers over choosing the right greeting—hug, kiss, handshake, fist bump, shoulder grab—and tuning into the error of excessive self-deprecation or the slippery slope of formal, hierarchical protocols: “highly arbitrary, difficult to parse, and subject to change without notice.” His focus can be broad, as suggesting that tone trumps action (or, paraphrasing Noel Coward, “it’s all a matter of lighting”), but often as not he screws down tight on small example from his life—as a tour guide or online manners coach for instance, when he shows himself to be a discreet, keen observer rippling with bad-boy humor.

Alford is a razory-wicked, fun guy to be around, and each of his stories are like those “tiny acts of grace” brightening your day.

UPDATE: And here’s the Publisher’s Weekly review.

 

Anyone There?

One of the unanticipated mysteries of our society’s switch to online communications is the unanswered e-mail.  While many people would say that we’ve always had unanswered communications–be they smoke signals or letters or telegrams or faxes–I think the remove of the internet, compounded by how its instaneousness breeds impatience in us all, makes the ethersphere an even more likely breeding grounds for communications-based sloth. It’s easy not to respond to a friend or colleague’s e-mail because I get so much practice not responding to spam.

Yesterday the Times ran my article about the phenomenon (it is here), along with illustrations by the great Ross MacDonald, and comments from John Leguizamo, Erin McKean, PM Forni and others.

 How has having published this article yesterday changed my life? By making all my communications today seem very, very fraught.

 

Poke to the Future

Have you wowed any fellow party goers recently with your ability to converse about something other than your thoughts on the crudité? Been taken on a tour of your friend’s newly installed wine cellar and been able to offer a non-menacing response rather than drop-kick a bottle of Brunello? According to Henry, you owe Facebook a big “Thank You.”

In a special supplement in the August issue of Vanity Fair, Henry celebrates the societal gains the oft-criticized social networking site has already produced and predicts what future fruits we are still to harvest. Here’s hoping that someday we’ll live in a world where we are free to yell out in a crowded place how many episodes of True Blood we watched in bed that day.

And if you need any further proof of Henry’s Facebook acuity, you can review his analysis of The Six Most Common Personality Types on Facebook on VanityFair.com.