Tuesdays with Morrie

by Mitch Albom

Rating: ★★

Reflections of the author about the time spent with his dying old friend and professor, Morrie. To cope with the psychological toll of his degenerative disease, Morrie throws himself into a range of distractions, filling his house with old friends and students and media, who ask him questions and allow him to distance himself from his issue. Albom in particular (once his newspaper job is on hiatus and he doesn't have much else to do) takes a sort of course of semi-regular Life 101 sessions with Morrie, as they discuss Big Questions and Albom tries to find some way to comfort his friend.

I hope I'll not be thought cruel to say that Morrie -- or at least Albom's image of him -- was not a terribly original thinker. The stuff he comes out with ranges from the unobjectionable but unsurprising ("examine your life", "you will die", "choose your own values") to the simply soppy nonsense ("love conquers all"). Albom says it best himself when he responds to one of these utterances with the remark that it sounds like a song lyric. It's everyday sentimentality, lines that have become so trite that their truth-value is rarely questioned, and they're mostly useful to accompany a melody. Of course, whatever harmless sentiment brings a dying man comfort shouldn't be begrudged, but Albom's bringing them to us, not Morrie, and given that this book seems to be pitched with a sort of 'life-lessons' message I was hoping for a little more.

The man at the centre of the story gets a biography, with episodes seemingly selected to try and wring some extra feeling out of the subject matter -- Morrie loses both his parents at a young age. It failed to strike anything in my cold, dead heart. Morrie was otherwise almost a stereotype, the ambiguously religious sociology professor who gave all his students As as an anti-war activist, and who breaks into tears at any provocation (I initially thought this was a displacement of his self-pity while suffering from his disease, but it later becomes clear he was always like that). Albom's focus is really on giving some sense of Morrie's personality, so we don't really learn if Morrie ever achieved anything noteworthy before his disease.

One of the main merits of the book is that it gives a raw look at life in the late stages of a terminal illness. Morrie tries to distract himself, to make it into a mission, to detach himself, but you nonetheless see the energy leaving him, the despair and despondency in his last session with the TV host, the desperation with which he reaches for the connections that have always sustained him. The parts that irked me the most were the flirtations with deathism -- the view that just because your death is unavoidable, it should be treated as good or acceptable. The naturalistic fallacy carried to the extreme. The book's no worse than most for this, but once you've seen this assertion questioned properly you start to lose patience with those that repeat it.