The Question of the Month: Would You Want to Be Immortal?

Sarah Harrison Smith on January 18, 2018

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This winter marks of the 100th anniversary of the birth of that groundbreaking, witty, and irreverent novelist, Muriel Spark. Spark was born in Scotland in February 1918, and though The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie remains her most famous book, thanks to the film starring Maggie Smith, all her novels are remarkable in their own ways.

A Catholic convert, she was particularly interested in people living in odd, isolated groups, such as convents, ladies' clubs, and girls' schools; places where competition and secrecy could thrive. Spark's books are not "nice," but they are always clever, comic, and perceptive -- well worth reading again now.

Her third novel, Memento Mori, published in the U.S. by New Directions, is set in London among a community of very old people. All receive anonymous telephone calls warning them to remember that they “must die.” The question of how foreknowledge of death might change our lives seems especially timely this month, when a number of new and forthcoming books address that theme head on.

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Happiness is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Old

By John Leland

(Sarah Crichton Books/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Back in 2015, John Leland took on a long-term assignment for the New York Times, following six elderly New Yorkers over the course of a year. That newspaper series, “85 & Up” (which presumably took its name from Michael Apted’s extraordinary Seven Up documentaries) became Happiness is a Choice You Make. Leland weaves his own life story into those of his long-lived subjects. “Like all good literary characters, each of the elders wanted something – as did I, even if I didn’t know it at first.” This charming, enlightening, and goodhearted nonfiction study will make you feel a little more grateful for your own life, however long it lasts.

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The Immortalists

By Chloe Benjamin

(G.P. Putnam's Sons)

In The Immortalists, the Amazon Book Editors’ spotlight pick for the month of January, author Chloe Benjamin considers whether we would live our lives differently if we knew how long they'd last. This blazingly intelligent novel about, among other things, sibling love, will make you ponder the extent to which we are responsible for our own fates. In the midst of a suspenseful story, Benjamin considers the costs and rewards of trying to extend our lives though science. Is living “a lesser life in order to live a longer one” a worthwhile endeavor?

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The Afterlives

By Thomas Pierce

(Riverhead Books)

This weird, wonderful novel by Thomas Pierce, whose short story collection, Hall of Small Mammals, was widely praised, tells the story of a young man who, at the age of 33, dies briefly, and then is granted a reprieve, thanks to a pacemaker, of sorts. He’s nonplussed by the nothingness he remembers of his death: “To have gone through at least the first few stages of death and to have returned without any glimpse of what lies beyond had been, to put it mildly, belief-shattering.” Alive again, he encounters strange phenomena that hint at mysteries outside the known world.

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Eternal Life

By Dara Horn

(W.W. Norton & Company)

Imagine giving up your own mortality to save your little boy from death. In Dara Horn’s funny and poignant fifth novel, Eternal Life, Rachel has done just that, and lived through 2,000 years of love, loss and Jewish history. The father of that boy Rachel saved made the same sacrifice, and has reunited and parted from Rachel again and again. ("You're the only thing worth waiting for," he tells her, "And I have all the time in the world.") Rachel is now 84 years old, living in New Jersey, and trying to find a way to finally die. Meanwhile, her granddaughter, Hannah, conducts longevity research that could -- paradoxically -- help Rachel escape from perpetual life.

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