I have been told that Tuesdays with Morrie is a sentimental book with not much to offer in a literary sense. To be honest, I can see where people who say that are coming from.
However, my maternal uncle died from Motor Neurone Disease (or ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, as it is called in America, and in this book) so I was nonetheless intrigued to read about another’s experience of the illness.
Morrie Schwartz was a real person, a university professor, and Mitch Albom was his student from a number of years previously. Tuesdays with Morrie was essentially written as a memoir: focusing on the last fourteen Tuesdays of his life, where the professor would impart his final teachings to his student and, in so doing, the rest of the world.
That definitely has the ring of ‘cheesiness’ about it, for sure, but for those who are prepared to delve deeper, this is so much more than an uplifting read about a dying man’s desire to pass on life’s lessons to those who are still living. It is a powerful insight into a truly horrendous disease, and a moving account of one man’s impact on others.
Unlike some of his other novels, such as the surreal The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Mitch Albom appears as himself in this book. A driven and ambitious journalist whose desire for more and more success sent him chasing after the unobtainable and missing the point of life, Albom found himself staring at an emaciated version of his old university professor on the television one moment,and getting on to a plane to see him the next.
What transpired was an arrangement for regular meetings, on Tuesdays, in which Albom would fly 700 miles to sit down and talk with his old sociology professor, watch him undergo painful physical therapy and witness the often humiliating effects of his disease. Albom reports all of these, as any good journalist might, in what becomes a real page-turner of a memoir, filled with honest observations and contemplations on life, the universe and everything.
Interspersed into the narrative are reflections on the past; moments that show Morrie as he was, and fill in the necessary gaps in the understanding of a man who seems, at times, too good to be true. Morrie is the quintessential ‘perfect professor’, who inspires all he meets with simple, yet effective, maxims on the meaning of life.
“Learn how to live and you’ll know how to die; learn how to die, and you’ll know how to live.”
However, there are so many good reasons to read this book that don’t centre around the lessons of life. Albom’s writing style is one. His ability to take you within a situation, and a person’s mind, in so few words, is inspiring to any writer. His perspective, viewed through imagery that is not only honest and revealing, but sometimes just plain entertaining, is entirely captivating.
“In his graduation day robe, he [Morrie] looks like a cross between a biblical prophet and a Christmas elf.”
I stormed through this book in just one day – it really was that readable – and I couldn’t put it down. If it had just been a book full of cheesy platitudes, I would have slung it back on the shelf quicker than you could eat a gorgonzola sandwich, but these are not useless life lessons. On the contrary, Albom is giving the reader a moment to (in the immortal words of the great Ferris Bueller) “stop and look around once in a while.” And that’s always a good idea.
Perhaps the most effective truism in the book, the one that will stay with me, is this. Morrie coped with his illness by ‘detaching’ from it. Not in the way we usually detach from things that we struggle with…by ignoring they exist, letting our feelings bottle up and then exploding at a later date, because we haven’t dealt with them properly. He encourages the reader to fully feel, but he also didn’t advocate dwelling on things. Morrie’s style of detachment meant feeling something fully, then putting it to one side and getting on with feeling other, more positive emotions.
“Detachment doesn’t mean you don’t let the experience penetrate you. On the contrary, you let it penetrate you fully. That’s how you are able to leave it.”
And that’s what will stay with me. That’s why I’m glad I read this book.