“The truth is, once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.”
There are two things I feel I ought to warn you of as I begin this review. Firstly, there’s no way I can write about Tuesdays With Morrie without breaking my 500 word rule; and secondly, I really, really loved this book for intensely personal reasons, and probably not for the reasons that Mitch Albom intended when he wrote it, or indeed for the reasons that most people loved it.
When I started reading it, I did not realise that Tuesdays With Morrie is a memoir of a real person, Morrie Schwartz, who really did have the conversations with the author that comprise the bulk of the book. It works well as a fictional parable, but the fact that it’s an account of real events gives the story a great deal more power. It also makes the book much harder to critically analyse, because these events really happened. That said, I feel the book would have greatly benefited from Morrie writing it himself. When they’re having their conversations, Albom perfectly captures Morrie’s gentle, understated benevolence, which I imagine contributed greatly to the profundity of the ideas they shared together. But the way Albom presents these ideas to the reader is fantastically overblown, ramming home every simple idea with enough repetition to sink a battleship, punching the reader in the face with every aphorism like it’s God-breathed gold-dust – you can almost feel him straining at the keyboard not to Write Every Sentence Like This In Order To Fully Impress Upon You How Important All Of This Is. When all is said and done, the simplistic and self-important style in which all of this is presented is, ironically, very unlike Morrie himself.
That was quite a relentless tirade just there, so I’ll backtrack and clarify what I did like about the book. At the risk of contradicting myself, I will say that the simple language with which Morrie’s home truths were presented were a huge part of the book’s charms, and it was quite lovely to have basic principles such as universal love, forgiveness, fellowship and peace reaffirmed from such an ordinary, earthbound source. That said, it is a little worrying to think that for millions of readers across the world, these basic ideas about what it means to be human were so earthshakingly profound.
From a more personal standpoint, there were a few aspects of the book that really chimed with me, and that I wish Albom had explored in more detail. I loved Morrie’s ideas about cultural resistance, that you can create your own culture rather than blindly following the prevailing ideas of those around you. The way that Mitch Albom drew on the shallow, loud-mouthed complexity of the media in the 90’s, such as the enormously publicised trial of OJ Simpson, and then contrasting it with the quiet simplicity of Morrie’s final weeks, was an enormously powerful and well-deployed device.
Speaking of the media and the prevailing culture, I found it really interesting to compare the presentation of the mid-1990s setting of the book (which is about when I was born) to the culture I see today, and seeing how little has changed in terms of addiction to the media, widespread self-centredness, the cult of celebrity and the oppressive nature of believing everyone else’s projected images of themselves and thinking you’re the only one grappling with angst and doubt and fear.
The other main way the book became pretty impactful for me was the honesty with which Albom records Morrie’s experiences of dying itself. The passages where it becomes clear that Morrie’s health is sharply declining, and the impact this had on their conversations together, reminded me enormously of my final weeks with my Mum. There is a certain type of honesty in a dialogue where one of you knows they don’t have as much time left as they’d like; unencumbered by fears of consequences or repercussions, you’re free to say to each other whatever matters most. Every word counts, and you can feel that. It creates a type of meaningful conversation that you rarely see in any other sphere of experience. Albom manages to capture the spirit of this so well towards the book’s end that you keenly feel his sense of loss once Morrie is gone. Those first foreshadowing chapters gain bucketfuls of emotional power and resonance on a second reading, so I can completely appreciate the mindset of those who regularly reread this book.
I’m glad that the world has been blessed with good people like Morrie. I’m glad that Albom got back in touch with him, and that they were able to reconnect in Morrie’s final few works. And, most of all, I’m glad Albom had the foresight to record those wonderful final encounters with his friend. Based on the sales figures of his memoir (about 14 million, according to the internet), the positive messages it contains, and the impact it’s had on its millions of readers, it sounds like the world would be an awful lot worse without it.
“Death ends a life, not a relationship.”