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Harper's Magazine and The Wall Street Journal

Nov 05, 2013

The November issue of Harper’s Magazine contains an essay length book review by Bee Wilson which calls The Book of Immortality a “wonderful exploration… a picaresque in various subcultures of life extension that is openhearted but not credulous, sardonic but not cynical.” Read the full story here

*Mid-Nov Update: The fall issue of the Montreal Review of Books features a cover story on The Book of Immortality

And The Wall Street Journal also ran an excellent review of The Book of Immortality (behind a paywall).
“Highly enjoyable,” they say. “Exquisite moments of offbeat comedy… Mr. Gollner is a fine wordsmith. Part Mary Roach, part Joe Strummer of the Clash, he injects punk energy and invention into the genre of quirky scientific nonfiction. Long may he write.”

As an aside, I was delighted to note that the reviewer was Dr. John J. Ross, M.D., author of “Shakespeare’s Tremor and Orwell’s Cough: The Medical Lives of Great Writers.” It was in his book that I learned about how Milton was treated with “usnea“—“moss from the skull of a man who had died violently (in plentiful supply in a damp country where there was an abundance of severed heads rotting on pikes),” as the WSJ put it in their review of his book.

May the circle remain unbroken. The full review:

The Book of Immortality, by Adam Leith Gollner

Spoiler alert: We are all going to die. With a lean diet, regular exercise, stimulating work, strong friendships, good genes and a generous dollop of luck, some of us may live longer than others, but we are all mortal. Thus the title of Adam Leith Gollner’s highly enjoyable “The Book of Immortality” is something of a misnomer. A more accurate, if less commercial, title might be “The Book of Wishful Thinking.”

“The Book of Immortality” is subtitled “The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever.” Mr. Gollner, an agnostic intrigued by mysticism and religion, begins by exploring what believers have to say about life after death. He describes himself as a “characterist” in search of “characters living real stories,” and there are certainly characters galore here: muscle-bound Buddhists, Sufi hippies, a diminutive, terrifying Montreal psychic and a Jesuit cinephile with a touch of senility. No consensus is reached on the nature of the afterlife, but there are exquisite moments of offbeat comedy, as when an Ultraorthodox rabbi recruits Mr. Gollner’s help in marketing his line of Ed Hardy-inspired kabbalistic T-shirts to Angelina Jolie

From religion, Mr. Gollner moves on to magic and the age-old quest for the rejuvenating waters of the fountain of youth. This leads to a series of absurd adventures, including an awkward nude romp in the hot springs of that ’60s Mecca, the Esalen Institute, and a trip to the flimflam tourist traps of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the supposed site of Ponce de Léon’s fountain of youth, where he feels “a surge of happiness about being in such a real-yet-artificial place.”

In one of the book’s best set pieces, Mr. Gollner visits the islands of Copperfield Bay, an archipelago in the Bahamas belonging to the magician David Copperfield, who claims that it contains a hidden lake with healing properties. This luxurious retreat appears to be a cross between Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch and the gadget-strewn lair of a Bond villain: “It’s about making billionaires feel like they’re kids again,” Mr. Copperfield tells him. The fountain of youth proves elusive, possibly nothing more than a metaphor or a sales ploy to attract high-end rental customers. Mr. Copperfield himself is a canny man-child under siege, a control freak entangled in litigation: “An agitation lurked behind his calm facade, a worldview strained through a colander of stress.”

Regarding immortality, the philosopher David Hume wrote: “All doctrines are to be suspected which are favored by our passions.” Mr. Gollner finds much that is suspect in the best and meatiest part of “The Book of Immortality,” in which he explores the science and pseudoscience of life extension. He attempts to track down some noted immortality enthusiasts, such as the architect Shusaku Arakawa, who built homes intended to ward off death; the geriatrician Daniel Rudman, who kicked off the craze for human growth hormone as an antiaging drug; and the astrologer Linda Goodman, who espoused the liberal consumption of fruit juice as the path to life everlasting. But it seems that they are all dead, with Goodman having expired of diabetic complications.

Mr. Gollner finds that science is overshadowed by magical thinking in many life-extension strategies. The most familiar of these is cryonics, as chosen by Ted Williams, whose head slumbers in a tank of supercooled liquid nitrogen in Arizona, perhaps to someday awake and unleash his trademark torrents of baroque profanity on an unsuspecting world. Mr. Gollner tours a creepy cryonics facility in Detroit, with interior design that looks like “a budget, outdated version of futurism; less iPod sleekness and more Atomic Age plastic flimsiness.” He finds that it is little more than a high-tech cemetery, based on the dubious assumptions that medical science will someday be able to cure all disease and that the frozen dead can be reanimated.

Self-styled “immortalists” claim that eternal life is already almost within our grasp. We need only give freely to their research program of trimming telomeres, reversing mutations and evacuating cells constipated by toxins. The leading light of the immortalists is 50-year-old Aubrey de Grey, who spouts “a farrago of scientific-sounding gibberish to dazzle nonspecialists.” Unfortunately, his credibility is undermined by his superannuated appearance. “His long, scraggly beard gave him an eerie and wizardly Rip van Winkle vibe. He looked consumptive. . . . The goal of preventing death never left his thoughts, he lamented. To cope with the responsibility, he drank many pints of beer every day.”

The transhumanists hope to do an end-run around mortality by phasing out the weak links of flesh and blood. In the near future, brain scans will allow the wetware of the brain, our memories, our personalities, our prejudices and passions, to be uploaded into cyberspace. We will flit from one cyborg body to another, or even inhabit several at once, for all eternity, or at least as long as the power lasts. This, of course, is pure fantasy, but easy to understand in light of how the “high priest of digital materialism,” Ray Kurzweil, who predicts that we will attain immortality within 30 years, feels about death: “It’s such a profoundly sad, lonely feeling that I really can’t bear it. So I go back to thinking about how I’m not going to die.”

Finally, there are the augmenters, mainstream scientists who study aging in the hope of prolonging life, delaying decrepitude and amassing wealth. The most scientifically valid means of life extension, at present, seems to be extreme caloric restriction, which involves knocking 30% off the usual daily intake. Lamentably, this is less feasible in real life than in laboratory animals. Researchers are trying to develop drugs that turn on the mechanisms of longevity triggered by low-calorie diets. This might lead to the health benefits of semi-starvation without all that pesky discipline and self-denial. Human data thus far is mixed at best. Even if it works, this approach will probably add only a few years to our life span. It could have momentous consequences for individuals and society, but it is a far cry from eternal life. As Mr. Gollner notes, the monk Qiu Chuji seems to have been right when he told a disappointed Genghis Khan that “there are no medicines for immortality.”

Mr. Gollner is a good sport and a fine wordsmith. Part Mary Roach, part Joe Strummer of the Clash, he injects punk energy and invention into the genre of quirky scientific nonfiction. Long may he write.

—Dr. Ross is the author of “Shakespeare’s Tremor and Orwell’s Cough: The Medical Lives of Great Writers.”