Clark Hays's Reviews > Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization

Immortality by Stephen  Cave
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's review
Feb 28, 2012

really liked it

Spoiler alert: We're all gonna die.

It's a given. There's an expiration date stamped in barely legible ink somewhere on our persons. Even though we can’t see it, we can feel it. We know it’s there. And yet as a species, we humans go to great lengths to convince ourselves it doesn’t apply. The tension that exists between the reality of this and the mental contortions we go through to create imaginary escape routes to avoid acceptance, according to author Stephen Cave, is the engine that powers civilization, literature, art, science and everything in between.

Cave, a philosopher and all around man of letters, ambles through history — focused primarily on the ancient Greeks and ancient Christians, with a little Gilgamesh thrown in for good measure — to examine what he considers the four most common strategies, or narratives, humans have devised to cheat death. He carefully explains each, then just carefully disassembles them, exposing the logical fallacies that should be enough to give any rational person pause.

It's a fun and fast-reading romp filled with interesting asides, great quotes from brilliant minds and swirling eddies of thought that never forces the reader to dive too deep. That's a shame, because I really wanted it too. I wanted more analysis of some of the almost casual asides that I found so powerful. Civilization as a by-product of death avoidance? Yes please, can I have some more?

The long build up and dismissal of the four traditional paths — a full three quarters of the book — eventually leads readers to a fifth way, as described by the author. Getting to that fifth way was the reason I kept reading, only to find it was explained in one short chapter. It was decent enough philosophic foreplay but an unsatisfying climax. The fifth way deserved an equally detailed compiling of anecdotal evidence, a deeper explanation of how it might work and examples from history that could bring it to life.

Still, I liked this book, though occasionally grew frustrated at the surface treatment only to get pulled deeper on subsequent pages, sometimes unintentionally. I read it to try and better understand immortality as it applies to the vampire mythos (for my own writing) and actually enjoyed it well beyond research. I only hope the author comes out with a companion book that spends as much time and care on a method of living fully, meaningfully and thoughtfully without worrying about death.
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Reading Progress

February 28, 2012 – Started Reading
February 28, 2012 – Shelved
March 4, 2012 –
page 55
16.37% "...As the novelist Susan Ertz put it, millions long for immortality who don't know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.""
April 8, 2012 –
page 256
April 13, 2012 – Finished Reading

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