Everyone can look back on their life and describe a significant mistake they’ve made and the lesson they learned from it. But how many of you would be willing to write it down and have the world read about it?
Charles Grodin found over eighty people to contribute to his collection of essays in If I Only Knew Then..., and the net profits from book sales go to HELP USA, a not-for-profit organization. HELP USA’s mission is to empower the homeless and others in need to become self-reliant, an excellent cause in this reader’s book.
Many of the contributors are celebrities such as Alan Alda, Carol Burnett and Ben Stiller. Others are accomplished and well-known people in the industries of politics, business and Hollywood.
Sally Kellerman (Hot Lips from the movie M*A*S*H) learned what happens when you play hard-to-get with Marlon Brando. Judge Judy got a lesson in how to gain respect as a woman. Senator Orrin Hatch regrets voting against the Martin Luther King holiday.
Some of the essays are entertaining, the lessons poignant and universal. Others seemed to have missed the point, or were turned in like last-minute homework assignments, perhaps out of guilt or obligation to Grodin.
One lost lesson in particular comes from Leonard Nimoy, who still bristles over the memory of inappropriately naming his book I Am Not Spock. He declares that he is still unconvinced he was wrong. He writes, “Live and learn,” but did he?
This book feels like it was put together more for the sake of HELP USA than for the readers. If I Only Knew Then... hits and misses. The “hits” are moving and, at times, heartbreaking. If you do decide to purchase this book and read selectively, do not miss the stories by Barbara Feldon (from TV’s Get Smart) or Sheldon Schultz. Their lessons anchor the book, providing meat and meaning.
The misses, however, are a tad boring and blowhardy. It’s like when you’re mingling at a party and some clueless guy sidles up and chimes in within seconds as if he’s with the program already and rather misses the point, contributing little, while you make excuses to escape what was, just a minute ago, a lively conversation.
Maybe we’re not meant to take anything substantive away from some of these stories. Or maybe, if the authors are neither famous nor literary pros, we aren’t that interested. If the little boy next door is selling magazine subscriptions to buy uniforms for the school band, should you subscribe to three or four periodicals, including Tedious Times and Pointless Monthly in order to support a good cause because you also get Entertainment Weekly out of it? Well, that’s up to you.