Cicadas, Average Human Lifespan and Other Letters to the Editor

The Cicadas’ Library

To the Editor:

Among the “buggy literary allusions” to cicadas offered by Peter Kuper in his Sketchbook (June 20), he might also have included a reference from Alphonse Daudet’s “Letters From My Windmill.” When Daudet is unsuccessful in discovering the source of an old proverb, a fife player advises him to seek it in “the cicadas’ library,” meaning a field where one lies on one’s back and contemplates.

“It is a marvelous library admirably arranged,” Daudet writes, “open day and night to poets, and looked after by little librarians with cymbals who make music all the time for you.”

Colman Andrews
Riverside, Conn.

For a Price

To the Editor:

In his review of Steven Johnson’s “Extra Life” (June 13), Steven Pinker rightly notes the amazing achievement of decades of life being added for many in wealthy nations as described in the book. But neither Pinker nor Johnson pays sufficient attention to the downside of that achievement — the manifestation of debilitating and horrific chronic illnesses that plague so many who are in their sixth, seventh, eighth decades of added life and beyond. For many the quality of a lot of these added years is poor. Our health care, housing, recreation and retirement institutions are not set up to manage the needs of the superannuated. Dying slowly and miserably when enfeebled or demented is so worrisome to the very old that huge swaths of the world are instituting forms of medically assisted dying to respond to the realities of very old age.

Societies also are not ready for the onslaught of costs the gain in life span has produced. The number of people 65 or older will grow to 1.5 billion in 2050, with most of that increase in developing countries. This unprecedented demographic transition essentially may mean shifting the world’s economy to cater to the medical needs of a long-lived elderly population. Many developed countries with median ages over 50 by that time will in essence be seen as enormous nursing homes and chronic care facilities by a much younger developing world that is likely to have other priorities.

Why we age still remains mostly a mystery. That we age, even more slowly and with a longer life span, is a fact that brings mixed blessings and very real costs.

Arthur Caplan
Rockville, Md.

Smoking Gun

To the Editor:

Uh-oh. I fear Judith Ann Lanzinger from Ohio, whose letter in the June 20 issue noted a glut of recent references to Chekhov’s gun, will have “gone off” if she saw the mention that appeared in Jonathan Lee’s essay “Past Is Prime” in that very issue. We’re now all going to be on the lookout.

Carrie Lee
Remsenburg, N.Y.

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