I really wanted to hate Blue Zones. My notes app is full of critiques of Dan Buettner's reasoning; my Kindle highlights, almost sarcastic.
And yet, writing this review a month later, I keep coming back to it.
The book begins with a compelling premise. Buettner, a journalist with National Geographic, sets off to explore the secrets to longevity, and finds a pattern of behavior that he believes is the answer to all of the worlds problems.
This search for some kind of universal panacea is neither new nor uncommon. The book acknowledges this, leading with a story about Ponce de Leon, the Spanish explorer who landed in Florida looking for a fountain of immortality.
It then goes region by region, starting in the Okinawa, before going to Sardinia, Icaria, Loma Linda, and Nicoya in quick succession. And as it analyzes each region, it is great.
The analyses of each region are based upon a combination of demographic data and interviews with centenarians in the regions. The interviews are where the book really stands out. Because the book, though unwilling, expands outside of medical advice and reflects on the nature of aging, interspersed with little nuggets of wisdom from the interviewees.
The nature of the book undermines this. It is presented as a piece of popular science, the same way an article that says "Study Finds: Chocolate Cures Cancer" might be. It jumps to conclusions, while the scientists say perhaps things are not always that clear-cut. In the margins were odd facts that seemed like they would be at home in a world records book. By the end of the book, Buettner is citing Dr. Oz (!), and encouraging you to go to his website to use the "Blue Zones Vitality Compass™." A quick google search reveals a line of cookbooks and other follow-up books.
One thing that makes non-fiction books so good is that they are not trying to sell you anything—the author has already sold you the book. But by the end, Buettner is selling and selling and selling.
I don't think Buettner wanted the book to go in this direction, but felt he had to in order to sell it. I found him through this wonderful New York Times Magazine article, a tone very different—and better—than that of this book.
Ultimately, the (questionably) "scientific" conclusions could easily have been summarized in this book—don't read it for that purpose. Instead, read it for timeless advice from almost timeless people.
You can see my notes here.