Long for This World, by Jonathan Weiner

A few weeks ago my son mentioned that new medical research may well extend our lives significantly, even for those of us alive today. So when I saw a recommendation for this book by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Beak of the Finch, I jumped on it. I was prepared for some heavy reading but in fact the book flew by, the science delivered in small, easily digestible bites. Weiner has an outstanding ability to describe the particulars of the research being done such that a layman can easily follow it.

To my amazement, that research promises more than just many of us being able to live to 100. It may enable us, basically, to live forever. And not just as withered, decrepit shells, but with the health of our prime.

Of course, my immediate thought was a cynical conviction that these benefits would be monetized like everything else, so only the rich would live forever while we peasants would serve and die. I wondered if immortality was such a good thing: Strom Thurmond would have been a Senator until the end of time.

Luckily, Weiner doesn't avoid the tough questions. He brings in philosophy, art and literature. He looks at the big questions. Would such longevity bring massive overcrowding or would people have even fewer children or none? Societies whose life spans have increased dramatically in the last 60 years have also experienced dramatic declines in birthrates. He asks if we would become bored, if life would lose its meaning. He quotes moral philosopher Bernard Williams from The Makropulos Case where he argues that: “Immortality, or a state without death, would be meaningless …so, in a sense, death gives the meaning to life.”

Weiner asks what immortality would do to our sense of time:

Mortality is the central fact of our lives . . . We try to number our days, so that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom, as we are advised in the Psalms. And it is essential to us at any age to know or to guess roughly where we are in our time—because that knowledge does teach us how to live.

Our ability to exist in time may require our being mortal, although we can’t understand that any more than the fish can understand water. What we call the stream of consciousness may depend upon mortality in ways that we can hardly glimpse.

Even more interesting for me as a writer, he considers our universal metaphor of life as a journey. All stories are about journeys. We writers work hard at learning how to structure stories to be meaningful and interesting. One thing we know for sure is what Aristotle said: all stories have a beginning, middle and end. But what if they don't? How do we then understand the shape of our lives?

We are performers of the self, we are playwrights of our lives, and we need death to bring down the curtain, or the play will go on too long; the story will lose all shape and cease to be a story at all.

Weiner gives us not just the science behind today's search for immortality, but also some of the people behind it. These lively conversations and descriptions help to make the book even more readable. There's a lot here to think about, questions that go to the heart of what it means to be human. The book came out in 2010, leaving me eager to find out what new research has happened since then. I'm still not at all convinced that hugely increased longevity is a good thing, but I want to know more about it.

If you could stay healthy, would you want to live to 100? How about 500? A thousand?

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