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Alan Alda Ponders Life's Meaning in a New Memoir

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Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

Most Americans know Alan Alda as Hawkeye Pierce, the wisecracking doctor from the hit TV series M*A*S*H. And the actor manages to toss off more than a few one-liners as he talks about his new book, Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself.

The memoir is a meditation on the actor's deepest held values, including living life creatively, doing good and furthering women's rights — themes that have surfaced in various commencement addresses Alda has given over the years. "I kept looking through these talks to see if I could live up to what I was telling these kids," he says. "I think when you give advice, especially ... to young people, you're really talking to yourself."

During the 11 years that Alda played Hawkeye, he appeared in all 251 M*A*S*H episodes and won five of the 21 Emmys he was nominated for. The 1983 series finale, which Alda directed, is still the single most watched episode ever on TV.

Alda also established a reputation as a political activist. He was a strong supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment and, in 1995, entertained the idea of running for the U.S. Senate from New Jersey. Several years later, he played a senator on the TV series The West Wing. Going against type, he played a corrupt politician in the 2004 movie The Aviator, for which he received an Oscar nomination.

His first book, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed, a memoir of growing up with a schizophrenic mother and a largely absent father, was published in 2005.

Alda says he wrote Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself after a near-fatal medical emergency four years ago left him both euphoric at his survival and pondering life's meaning. His answers display his trademark humor. Once, while speaking to a graduating class of doctors, Alda asked them, "Will you care more about the case than the person?" As in, "Nurse, have the gastric ulcer come in at three." It's a reminder about compassion that Alda, even in the role of a zany TV surgeon, has clearly never needed.

This author appearance, sponsored by the Politics and Prose Bookstore, was recorded in September 2007 at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington; onsite audio engineering by David E. Eisner and Trevor Higgins.

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Linda Kulman
Linda Kulman, the editor of’s weekly feature Book Tour, is an avid reader, veteran journalist and writer living in Washington, D.C. She worked as a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report for a decade, where she reported for every section of the magazine. Most recently, she covered religion and consumer culture. Kulman’s book reviews have appeared in The Washington Post and on She has collaborated on four non-fiction books, working with a variety of notable figures. Early on in her career, she worked for several years as a fact checker at The New Yorker. Kulman also earned a degree from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.