Reviews — From the November 2013 issue

At Death’s Door

The hope and hokum of immortality

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Discussed in this essay:

The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever, by Adam Leith Gollner. Scribner. 416 pages. $28.

The Long and the Short of It: The Science of Life Span and Aging, by Jonathan Silvertown. University of Chicago Press. 192 pages. $25.

The Longevity Seekers: Science, Business, and the Fountain of Youth, by Ted Anton. University of Chicago Press. 240 pages. $26.

Counterclockwise: My Year of Hypnosis, Hormones, Dark Chocolate, and Other Adventures in the World of Anti-Aging, by Lauren Kessler. Rodale. 256 pages. $24.99.

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go, the main characters, who are human clones, hear rumors about something called a “deferral.” There is speculation that if two clones can prove to the authorities that they are in love, they might be granted a reprieve from their fate, which is to donate their major organs one by one and then to die. After careful consideration, Tommy and Kathy visit a former teacher to explain that they are in love and to ask for a deferral. But she disappoints them: there are no deferrals, under any circumstances. It was only a wishful rumor, she tells them, or rather a series of rumors “that gets created from scratch over and over.”

At some level, we all know death is in the cards. You see a photo of aged hands — papery, with raised veins — clasping a cup of coffee and realize with a jolt that they are yours. The year of your birth, which once seemed so fresh, recedes. Pets die. Parents die. Yet we carry within us the secret hope that aging is something that happens to other people; the Mahabharata says that the greatest wonder in the world is that “no man, though he sees others dying all around him, believes that he himself will die.” Each new generation has sought to defer the dreadful truth with the wishful rumor of immortality, which is really a series of rumors created from scratch over and over.

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