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Review of "Old Age"

By Michael Kinsley
Tim Duggan Books, 2016
Review by Bob Lane, MA on May 26th 2016
Old Age

Michael Kinsley is a columnist at Vanity Fair, a New Yorker contributor, and the founder of Slate. In his most recent book he presents a potpourri of tasty morsels of clever and serious words about life, disease, and death. The essays comprising the book include some jokes, some thoughtful considerations of how to endure a serious disease, recommendations of how to live, and a knockdown argument.

About life: "The easiest way to shuffle off to Buffalo with a good reputation is to earn it legitimately. I you want to be remembered as a good person, then try to be a good person." (14)

About disease: "Parkinson's is not your worst choice." (if you must have a disease) (19) Diagnosed with the disease Kinsley faces it by noticing the three ways to deal with the bad news diagnosis: acceptance, confrontation, or denial. He opts for confrontation "learning as much as possible about the disease" and seeking appropriate treatments, reading the science around the research, and campaigning for more research funds; while at the same time employing denial which means "letting the disease affect your day-to-day life as little as possible." The discussion of Parkinson's and treatment options is extended and informative including a description of brain surgery to implant an electric device useful in dealing with some of the symptoms.

A knockdown argument: Kinsley writes about the research using stem cells and is justifiably angry with the George W. Bush administration for its ill conceived ban on stem cell research. That decree was not only a part of the Republican war on science, but also based on an invalid argument. The administration argued that stem cells come from human embryos, and all human cells have a right to life, stem cells will be destroyed in some research, therefore there shall be no stem cell harvesting for research. However, "the stem cells used . . . come from fertility clinics, which routinely produce multiple embryos for each attempted pregnancy." (31) And yet there was no attempt to ban the entire fertility industry which destroys far more embryos than stem cell research.

About death: A long discussion of ways of dying with statistics from the US Government indicating the odds of making it to 80 years or longer -- straight forward statistics -- just the facts presented clearly.

There are a few jokes (good and bad) in the book, intended I suppose to lighten the tone in this beginner's manual on death and dying. The discussion around preparing for the end of life is practical, useful, and interesting with a suggestion for a grand gift from one generation to the next: a tax on those soon to exit in order to pay down the enormous national debt and relieve the next generations of that debt.

The tone overall is similar to Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible, just not quite as dark. Both texts agree on this: "Find what it is you can do and do it to the best of your ability." And this:

 To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace. (Ecclesiastes 3)


© 2016 Bob Lane


Bob Lane is professor emeritus in philosophy at Vancouver Island University.

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