For all this distraction, Alford does eventually arrive at his definition of wisdom—249 pages after beginning, sixty-seven pages after Albee asks for it. Or rather, he identifies the five traits that comprise it: reciprocity, doubt, nonattachment, discretion, and acting for a social good. He also notes that being able to define wisdom is not the same thing as possessing it. “Knowing what to overlook, knowing when not to fixate, extinguishing the will—I’d love to be able to call any of these skills my own,” he writes. “Not having them has certainly been its own toboggan ride. Man plans, and God laughs; but man fixates, and God writes and produces his own HBO comedy special.”

Alford, of course, is not the only one operating with a wisdom deficit. In the book’s final chapter, he visits Ashleigh Brilliant, a seventy-five-year-old published epigrammist, with ten thousand to his name. Alford rightly lets the interview stand without comment. What comes through, however, is that this man who spends his time cranking out aphorisms is no wiser than anyone else; he resides not in some enlightened paradise but in a cluttered Santa Barbara house in the company of his irritating wife. And just maybe, since life is short, the artful distillation of entire philosophies is not the best use of his time.

Gregory Beyer is a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.