By People Staff
April 15, 1991 12:00 PM

by David Friend and the editors of LIFE

Somehow, when the editors of LIFE asked a group of people to explain existence for a special 1988 issue, they didn’t find one person who knew the real meaning of life: chocolate-covered cake doughnuts fresh from the oven. They got a lot of other answers, though, many of them provocative, funny and/or enlightening. This book, a megaexpansion of that issue, consists of observations by 173 people and 132 photographs, many of them magnificent.

The photographers represented include such names as Alfred Eisenstaedt, Mary Ellen Mark, Cornell Capa, Sylvia Plachy, Harry Benson and two former photo editors of PEOPLE: John Loengard and John Dominis. Their pictures are fascinating, though the fact that many of them are decades old is too bad. (While the meaning of life probably hasn’t changed much, using old photos implies that people today are somehow not facing up to things very well.)

The text consists of answers to that most meaningful of questions elicited from an array of subjects. The most boring replies are from dogmatic clergy people and metaphysicians of various bents.

The other responses range widely. Composer John Cage’s complete comment is “No why. Just here.” Writer Studs Terkel’s is “To make a dent.” Author Marilyn vos Savant says, “The only real meaning in life can be found in a good man. And maybe Paris. Preferably the two together.”

Among the optimists is actress Marlee Matlin: “When there is a hole someplace in the world, I believe a warmth eventually fills it. When there is poverty, a richness of spirit eventually comes to help.”

The moralists include Oliver North: “We are not here to avoid decisions but to make hard choices between good and evil by using an ethical system not invented by man but by our Creator—a framework of truth and moral guidance through which we can find deliverance from despair.”

Richard Gere, hinting that the meaning of life is no punctuation or prepositions, jots, “No Creator/ No Meaning/ Diamond/ Mind/ Open/ Heart/ Light/ Step.” Author Annie Dillard says, “We are here to witness the creation and to abet it.” Adds taxi driver José Martinez: “I like driving a cab. I do some fishing, take my girl out, pay taxes, do a little reading, then get ready to drop dead.”

Most of these answers probably tell us more about the people giving them than the nature of the universe, but that’s OK. Friend, by the way (he’s a LIFE senior editor), includes 156 people in his acknowledgments, suggesting his idea of the meaning of life is saying thank you. We could do worse. (Little. Brown, $24.95)