BOOK REVIEW: Final Exits: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of How We Die by Michael Largo

Synopsis (From Goodreads): “To die, kick the bucket, to meet your Maker, dead as a doornail, get whacked, smoked, bite the dust, sleep with the fishes, go six feet under—whatever death is called, it’s going to happen.  In 1789 Ben Franklin wrote, “In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.”  Death remains a certainty.  But how do we die?  It’s the enormous variety of how that enlivens final exits.

According to death certificates, in 1700 there were less than 100 causes of death.  Today there are 3,000.  With each advance of technology, people find new ways to become deceased, often causing trends that peak in the first year.  People are now killed by everything, from cell phones, washing machines, lawn mowers and toothpicks, to the boundless catalog of man-made medicines.  In Final Exits the causes of death—bizarre or common—are alphabetically arranged and include actual accounts of people, both famous and ordinary, who unfortunately died that way.  (Ants, bad words, Bingo, bean bag chairs, flying cows, frozen toilets, hiccups, lipstick, moray eels, road kill, starfish, and toupees are only some of the more unusual causes.)”

I wanted so much to like this book, I really did.  The premise was so unique, although, obviously, morbid.  The format was easy to read.  Each section had a bold heading, anecdotes, & most ended with a cataloging of total deaths in a given period.

Even though the numbers were out-of-date (Final Exits was published in 2006) by the time I read it, I thought it still might give me an idea of how often people die from the listed causes.

So, why didn’t I like it?  Because, unfortunately, the list of negative issues I had with the book is much longer than the list of what I liked.  They range from typos to using questionable sources & I’d like to give you a few (a lot) examples:

  • Under the section “ACORDYNIA” (a fancy name for “mercury poisoning”), there’s an italicized section entitled “WHAT’S IN THAT FLU SHOT?” (page 10). In it, Michael Largo references the inflammatory & controversial claim that vaccines – namely thimerosal, an organomercury preservative – are directly linked to the rise in autism rates.  He doesn’t come right out & say it, directly, but – oh boy – does he imply it.
  • He also says in that section that, “In 2004, the Immunization Safety Review Committee recommended the removal of mercury preservatives from children’s vaccines after current stockpiles are depleted,” citing “Vaccines and Autism,” Institute of Medicine (IOM) Report Immunization Safety Review, May 2004. I have no idea what report Largo read, but it clearly wasn’t the one he listed in the text or bibliography.  What the report actually said was that there were thimerosal-free vaccines available for children age 6 and younger by March 2001, & that vaccines using the preservative, which the new formulations replaced, expired in 2002 – 4 years before Largo published Final Exits.  This, to me, shows a complete reading comprehension failure on the author’s part.
  • Largo makes some crude, & possibly presumptuous, claims. For example, he implies the “slovenly cigarette smokers” (page 14) were the reason heavy alcohol drinkers were involved in unexplained fires.  He also says John James Audubon suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in his later years, despite the fact that Alois Alzheimer didn’t make his discovery until 1906 & Audubon died in 1851 (pages 16-17).  These are assumptions & opinions dolled up as facts.
  • Some of the sections’ names don’t match the statistics at the end. One example is, the section titled “ANIMAL HOSTAGES” ends with “TOTAL NUMBER OF POLICE-ASSISTED SUICIDES EACH YEAR: 413.”  Largo should have titled the section “police-assisted suicide” – which would have more anecdotes than just the one on page 23, where a Janet S. threatened to kill her own cat in a grocery store robbery & officers shot her (after pepper spraying the cat, which ran away, & she threatened them with her knife).
  • Some entries – and the section names – seem like Largo only included them as an excuse to tell one good story/anecdote. The section “BAD WORDS” relays a story about a man who killed his wife “because she was about to say the words ‘New Jersey’” (page 39).  At the end, it suggests readers “See Also: Domestic Violence.”  If the man had many domestic violence arrests, like the section said, why wasn’t his story in the “Domestic Violence” section?
  • Largo writes, on page 44, that the American Bear Association provided a certain fact on deaths by black bears. However, there’s no citation for the American Bear Association in the bibliography.  This makes me question whether he’s getting some of his facts second-hand & not from the source he says.  But, I didn’t check every source.
  • In some cases, Largo words his facts poorly – if they’re not simply wrong (he’s already proven that he misinterprets what his sources say). He says: “Most of the date-rape deaths occurred as a result of drugs, […] slipped into drinks: Ninety-two women reported this to be the case in 2002” (page 95).  It sounds like 92 women reported date-rape deaths, the way he phrased it.  I can’t figure out if he’s wrong, if 92 women wrote a report on date-rape deaths, or if it’s a poor choice of phrasing.
  • The author makes some statements that he can’t possibly know. Saying that 29,000 people say, “this job is killing me” per year (“DENTAL SCHOOL,” page 97) could be Largo’s trying to lighten the mood, but it’s a “guesstimate” at best.  In a book of supposed facts, it seems odd to say.
  • Typos in a published book really make me cringe. I know nobody is perfect, but more than one typo lowers my opinion about a book.  Examples: “au-thors” on page 135, “international sabotage” (which, from its context, seems like it should have been “intentional sabotage”) on page 136, & “one fifteen hundred” on page 246.
  • It really pissed me off that – after Largo said that the term “hermaphrodite” (in the “UNISEX” section) was offensive to people, who call their situation a “sex differentiation disorder” – he kept using the term! In fact, he introduced the preferred term, used it one other time towards the section’s end, & otherwise used “hermaphrodite” exclusively.  Why say people find a term offensive & then use it more often than the term they prefer?  It’s incredibly offensive & I wonder what the heck the author was thinking.
  • Largo used sections of italicized text, primarily, to include additional anecdotes about a section. Rarely, these blocks of text are additional facts.  I thought this broke up the monotony of reading lots of facts (with some stories here & there).  Unfortunately, whoever picked where they go did a poor job of it.  Sometimes I would read an italicized section & wonder, “how does this apply?”, only to realize it went with the heading before/after the one I was reading.  I think they didn’t think about how readers would approach the page when they worked out the different blocks of text.  One example is the text on page 246, but it was something that came up a lot.
  • Finally, some paragraphs read like the author had written something before them & then it was removed – either by the editor, whoever did the arrangement of the text & pictures, or Largo himself. Usually, all that’s missing is an anecdote – like on page 384, where the 2nd paragraph of the “WEDDING DAY” section starts with “Another wedding day mishap […]” & there isn’t a mishap described before it.  Unfortunately, sometimes it’s vital information is missing.  One situation actually combines two of my annoyances: In the “X-RAY” section, the 2nd paragraph starts with “Others quickly saw the benefits of Rontgen’s invention […],” but who “Rontgen” is, or what he invented, weren’t explained.  The info was on the next page, in a woefully misplaced italicized section.

Wow, that got long.  & this is the trimmed down version!  Let me wrap this up quickly.

I give Final Exits by Michael Largo 2 out of 5 stars – or an “it was OK” – rating.  While I like the format, the subject he attempted to tackle was interesting, & the ease with which it can be read, I can’t overlook that huge list of content, copy, & formatting problems.

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