Friday, 7 November 2008

The Living End – Guy Brown ***

Take a glance at the cover of Guy Brown’s book and what does it seem to be about? I have to confess I thought it was fishermen, and with a title like that, the collapse of the fishing industry. I don’t say this to complain about the book design, though I will be doing that shortly, but to highlight the way the true topic doesn’t really encourage the reader in, which is presumably why the cover doesn’t feature graves or something similar. It’s about death, ageing and immortality, but mostly death.
Let’s get that design moan out of the way. Apart from the misleading cover design, this little hardback doesn’t look unattractive, but open it up and there’s horror inside. The text is plastered across the page in a largish sans serif font, heading way into the gutters at the side with very small paragraph indentations. The result is such a big, undistinguished block of text that it’s very uncomfortable to read. I’ve seen (much) better page layout in books on Lulu.
There’s no doubt that there some interesting stuff in here. I was particularly fascinated that the ‘people only lived until their thirties in the middle ages’ myth was in fact a double inverted myth. People used to assume the fact that the average lifespan of an adult was (say) 35 meant that people mostly lived to 35. More educated books (like, I admit, a couple of mine) spot that this is not really a meaningful number, because there was so much child mortality. We also see quite a few well known individuals live to their 50s, 60s, and 70s. So the assumption is that lifespans weren’t vast different from now, if you survived to be an adult.
However Brown shows that, though child mortality was hugely dominant in (say) the 17th century, the commonest life expectancy of those surviving childhood was mid-thirties. Even this, however proves an over-simplification, because as many people died in their 50s 60s and 70s as died in their 30s and 40s. The reality was that the spread was a lot bigger than now, but it’s too simple to say that most people who survived adulthood reached at least 60.
Towards the end of the book, Brown treats the ideas of life extension, though I found this rather stodgy and miserable for such an interesting subject. And in the end, that’s the fatal (?!) flaw of this book. It’s just a miserable topic. I didn’t want to start it, and as I read it didn’t get any more encouraging. I know everything we read can’t be cheerful and upbeat, but I find it hard to recommend taking on what is clearly an important topic, but nonetheless is one that dampens the soul so thoroughly.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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