Big Books

Big Books

Esquire: The Meaning of Life: Wit, Wisdom, and Wonder From 65 Extraordinary People

edited by Brendan Vaughan

Hearst Books, 160 pp., $19.95

We take these things for what they're worth – delete that "Esquire," and "The Meaning of Life: Wit, Wisdom, and Wonder" reads all too frighteningly like something you'd find on the cover of something you'd find in your stocking when you're finding yourself at a very frightening time in your life – but the magazine's first collection of its "What I've Learned" one-page interviews (a fixture since 1998) defies any shred of cynicism. "Our concept from the start was to go for people who had lived a life," writes Editor David Granger in his introduction. "We wanted men and women who had triumphed and failed in equally conspicuous measure. We wanted people who had achieved great things and people who had offended us. We wanted heroes and bad guys. And we wanted to pry their essential wisdom out of them." There's that word again: wisdom. Come up with another one, though, when coming face to face with Gerald Forster's portrait of a 90ish John Wooden opposite the answers that prolific (and peerless) interviewer Cal Fussman coaxed from the legendary UCLA coach.

The interviews – some of which lasted 45 minutes, others hours over several days – are absent the questions; Wooden's responses are bulletin board material, as it were, for anyone among us worth a shit. Each of the 65 were placed appropriately: Faye Dunaway among "The Characters," for instance; Julia Child, "The Trailblazers"; Ray Charles, Elvis Costello, Loretta Lynn, and Lou Reed, "The Voices"; Muhammad Ali and Don Rickles, "The Loudmouths"; Lauren Hutton, Evel Knievel, Ike Turner, and Ted Williams, "The Mavericks"; Red Auerbach ("If you're keeping score, win"), John McCain, and Wooden, "The Leaders"; David Brown, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Roman Polanski, "The Visionaries"; and Garry Shandling, "The Showmen." A portrait or illustration, as well as an abbreviated bio, accompanies each. One gets the overwhelming impression that the subjects are touched at being asked the questions they are, and that they're comfortable. Why does this matter? Because even if they are famous – and a good number of them are – that fame came in the wake of accomplishments big enough to make us bend our ear in gratitude. For their time.

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