by Lee Eisenberg (Twelve, $26, 304 pages)
By Harvey Freedenberg
At the rate of some 10,000 a day, the members of the baby boom generation (including the writer of this review) are turning 65. If some of life’s other milestones – the empty nest, a first grandchild, the loss of parents – haven’t spurred our cohort to reflect on the passage of time, attaining what for many is at least the symbolic age of retirement may well do the trick. It’s natural that some of those already enjoying the benefit of senior-citizen discounts might want a guidebook that helps make sense of the journey so far and offers a map of the road ahead.
Along comes former Esquire editor-in-chief and journalist Lee Eisenberg to fill that void. Eisenberg, the author of The Number, an untraditional guide to personal finance, and books on golf and consumerism, has set himself a formidable task. The Point Is, the result of his effort, is a lively, challenging book that will provide ample grist for reflection on the path we take to find life’s meaning.
Unsurprisingly, considering his background, Eisenberg’s metaphor for the journey is a story writer, someone he calls the “scribbler,” who’s been given “an assignment of indefinite duration: take your memories and mold them into chapters, the so-called chapters of your life.”
The job is complicated by the fact that, as E.M. Forster puts it, the story “begins with something we don’t remember and ends with something we anticipate but don’t understand.”
But the result of this lifelong project is a work Eisenberg imagines might be worthy of being called The Life and Times of My Enduring Self.
Like any coherent narrative produced by someone who confesses he’s “got stories on the brain,” Eisenberg divides his book into sections entitled “The Beginning,” “The Middle” and “The End.” Each segment of life poses distinct challenges, most notably the ones that emerge in the “elbow,” (a term Eisenberg borrows from his editing days to describe the problematic middle of a piece of journalism), the period that spawned what used to be thought of simplistically as a mid-life crisis, with its affairs and sports cars. When it comes to the concluding chapters, the practical problem for the scribbler is that she “wants to write you a story that builds to a meaningful conclusion but doesn’t know how many pages she’s been given to complete the job.”
It would be easy to mistake Eisenberg’s breezy style for a lack of seriousness, but whether it’s Epicurus, Leo Tolstoy, Carl Jung or Susan Sontag, he rounds up some impressive companions to help aid his scribbler character. Most inspiring among these is Viktor Frankl, a concentration-camp survivor whose classic, Man’s Search for Meaning, gave birth to the notion that “life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most adverse, and that our principal motivation for living is finding the value and purpose in it.”
Notable for its absence from Eisenberg’s book is any discussion of religion or spirituality – whose settled answers to life’s questions offer ready-made stories to hundreds of millions of people – though that’s probably not surprising for a self-described “unredeemed apostate.”
Eisenberg smoothly blends insights like Frankl’s from his research (the book includes a healthy selection of works for further reading) with observations from his own journey. One of the most dramatic events was his 47-year-old father’s sudden death from a heart attack when Eisenberg was 13. Many of his musings are inspired daily strolls through what he calls the “old country graveyard” that is Oakland Cemetery in Sag Harbor, Long Island, while he and his wife spent a recent summer there. It’s the final resting place of performers George Balanchine and Spalding Gray and writers Nelson Algren and James Salter, along with the expected large population of the anonymous and the forgotten. For him, those visits helped to “deprive death of its strangeness.”
Eisenberg concludes The Point Is by offering a trio of helpful tests – the Meaning in Life Questionnaire, the Purpose in Life Test and the Death Attitude Profile-Revised, all developed by psychologists in the past half-century to provide some objective way to measure how we relate to the search for meaning. For those interested in a more subjective exercise, he offers a useful template for a group discussion to encourage the sharing of our life stories.
Readers who have reached this point in the review probably are wondering whether Eisenberg ever reveals “The Point.” He does, but it wouldn’t be fair to him or to the pleasure of his valuable book to conclude with a dramatic reveal.
It’s inarguable that each of us is following a singular path, and our “points” will end up reflecting our uniqueness. Life’s challenges and joy, Eisenberg wisely reminds us, lie not so much in reaching a destination as in the journey that takes us there.
Email Harvey Freedenberg at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @HarvF.