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Standing tall

The advantages (and annoyances) of being vertically atop the charts

Height appears to confer an advantage in everything from climbing the academic ladder to winning an Oscar, the author suggests. Pictured, the Houston Rockets’ Yao Ming (7 feet, 6) and former coach Jeff Van Gundy (5 feet, 9). Height appears to confer an advantage in everything from climbing the academic ladder to winning an Oscar, the author suggests. Pictured, the Houston Rockets’ Yao Ming (7 feet, 6) and former coach Jeff Van Gundy (5 feet, 9).
By Daniel Akst
Globe Correspondent / June 28, 2009
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THE TALL BOOK:
A Celebration of Life from on High

By Arianne Cohen
Bloomsbury, 257 pp., illustrated, $20

Do you find airplane seats to be high-tech torture chambers? At cocktail parties, do you stand with your legs spread into a wide V so as not to tower over others? When you were a kid, did everyone expect you to be good at basketball?

If the answer to these questions is yes, run out and get this book. As one of the very few people taller than its author, I hereby invoke my rare qualifications to pronounce it just the thing for the millions of Americans above, say, the 95th percentile in height. The rest of you hard-hearted normals can go ahead and turn the page, because at last we giants have a volume of our own.

For the vertically well-endowed, the news it contains is mostly good. Tall people on average enjoy higher IQs, fatter paychecks, more successful careers, and longer lives. We have a better chance of becoming an Army general or chief executive of a Fortune 500 company, and height appears to confer an advantage in everything from climbing the academic ladder to winning an Oscar. “In the last thirty-one presidential elections,’’ the author reports, “the tall candidate has won the popular vote twenty-six times.’’

Taller males are especially lucky; on top of all the other advantages, we’re way more popular with women. “Tall men are the most romantically successful group on earth, bar none: more successful than rich people, accomplished people, and educated people.’’

There are downsides, of course. Tall people have trouble finding clothes, cost more to feed, and often find the world an uncomfortable place physically and emotionally - as the author did when her height contributed to the miseries of adolescence. Teenage girls who don’t like their height are twice as likely to be depressed as the general population, and tall women have it tough in some ways too; they have a harder time finding a mate and are less likely to reproduce.

The scariest news, for me, is that tall people are more prone to cancer - particularly very tall men. “Tall cancers are cancers where sex hormones play a role - namely breast and prostate cancer,’’ Cohen reports. Among the possible explanations: Tall people eat a lot more, which can elevate a key growth hormone that encourages cell replication, or tall people tend to reach puberty earlier and experience longer exposure to adult levels of sex hormones.

Nonetheless, Cohen clearly thinks (or has persuaded herself) that great height is an advantage, and she has done a remarkable job of compressing a tower of experience and research into quite a short and entertaining book, which makes this very case. Cohen is especially acute on the psychological consequences of great height, having survived cruel taunting by other children and such adult indignities as having to squeeze her long frame into tiny transit seats. She observes that kids who are quite tall often find themselves mistaken for dumb older children, yet are often treated more like responsible adults early in life - and soon start acting the part, which may be a factor in the lifelong advantages they seem to enjoy in the workplace, politics, sports, and other venues.

For Cohen, the book isn’t just about being tall; it’s also about standing tall, which she learns to do thanks in part to her experiences at a somewhat kooky European tall-persons’ club (where she finds a 7-foot boyfriend) and her encounters with other talls all over the landscape. She has a touching visit, for example, with Sandy Allen, America’s tallest woman, shortly before she died. Allen, who exceeded 7 feet 7 inches at her peak, finished out her days in a nursing home as a result of the growth disorder that had made her so large.

This is a terrific book despite a slight perkiness that creeps in now and then, which is as appealing in a tall person as a floppy pink bow. I also think the author might have done a better job of dealing with the growing divergence between American and European heights. For most of our history Americans have been the tallest people in the world (a measure of good nutrition in our historically fat land), but we stopped growing in the 1950s and some Northern Europeans have passed us - a feat the Dutch managed as early as 1930.

Cohen’s experts credit European social welfare policies, particularly universal health care. But the evidence presented here is far from conclusive. Cohen doesn’t address the role of immigration or whether affluent Americans, who enjoy some of the best healthcare in the world, are being outgrown by the Dutch and Scandinavians as well. And why should the British, with their longstanding National Health system, be smaller than we are? Or for that matter, the French?

Such quibbles aside, the real question is just who will want to read this volume. Cohen starts out by reminding us that tall is relative, so I can’t suggest a cut-off height beneath which her book will foster only boredom and jealousy. But if you think of yourself as tall, you’ll want a copy. And with any luck you won’t have to read it on an airplane.

Daniel Akst, who is 6 feet 4 inches tall when he stands up straight, is a writer in New York’s Hudson Valley.

THE TALL BOOK: A Celebration of Life from on High By Arianne Cohen

Bloomsbury, 257 pp., illustrated, $20

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