“We don’t really know what aging is,” says science writer Jonathan Weiner. “But once we figure it out, some people believe there’s no reason we can’t live for another 500, 1,000, or even 10,000 years.”
Along with the origin of life and the nature of consciousness, why and how we age is one of the weightiest questions out there. It’s one Weiner tackles in his new book Long for This World, a brilliant and improbably funny look inside the mind-bending science of immortality, due out in July.
The author of five previous nonfiction books, Weiner won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for The Beak of the Finch, in which he followed two Princeton biologists as they documented the (strangely riveting) evolution of Galápagos finch beaks. His ability to write simply and swiftly about complex evolutionary processes makes him an ideal guide through the burgeoning field of gerontology, or the science of longevity. “These people are asking what makes us mortal,” he says, reclining youthfully in his light-filled office at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he has taught since 2005. “It’s something everyone’s curious about, whether they’re scientists or not.”
Human life expectancy has doubled over the past 200 years, Weiner writes, thanks primarily to advancements in medicine. And while prominent gerontologists argue that we can expect another seven years fairly soon, the most fervent members of the field are gunning for the total eradication of death. Chief among the latter is Aubrey David Nicholas Jasper de Grey, Weiner’s arch protagonist. A 47-year-old British dipsomaniac with a ZZ Top beard, de Grey is in favor of “engineering negligible senescence”—creating human bodies that barely age at all.
De Grey is no alien-worshipping fanatic with a closet full of Life Extension magazines. He’s got a PhD from Cambridge, Weiner notes, and understands the latest molecular theories of aging. As Weiner explains it, our mitochondria—the cell’s power plants—gradually wear down as we get older, causing free radicals to build up, like trash in a city without garbage trucks. Once we develop hardier mitochondria and better trash collectors, de Grey thinks, we can treat and potentially cure aging.
Isn’t that a bit unnatural? “Not exactly,” says Weiner. “Our medical doctors are constantly working to keep us alive and healthy, and to prevent diseases of aging like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, atherosclerosis. In a sense, they’re all in the anti-aging business.” Long for This World suggests that the War on Aging is, in fact, age-old. The Egyptians concocted pricey anti-wrinkle creams, and philosopher Francis Bacon advised drinking wine with pulverized gold leaf to “become immortal as gold.” Sexual luminaries like Freud and W.B. Yeats underwent “rejuvenating” vasectomies, to which Yeats attributed his profusion of legendary poems and sex in his twilight years.
Still, even if immortality becomes feasible, does anyone really want to live forever? “Some philosophers argue that a few extra centuries would be hellishly boring,” Weiner says, laughing. “If you’re going to stay yourself, then maybe by a certain point you’ve done and seen it all, and life becomes sheer repetition, a kind of nightmare.” In the book, he points to the immortal gods of Greek mythology, who “relieved their boredom by watching the mortals down on the plain.” Moreover, in such a world, dictators might never leave power, and populations could become unsustainable. Then again: “De Grey thinks people might wait centuries before having kids,” Weiner says, “because they’d be in no rush.”
Weiner doesn’t find de Grey’s ideas “completely kosher.” After all, things like cancer, global warming, and getting hit by trucks currently stand in the way of everlasting life. But at a spry 56, Weiner admits it has a certain allure. “If I were told that I could live an extra few decades in the state of health I have now, I would be thrilled,” he says. “Beyond that, I’m not sure.”
‘Long for This World,’ July, Ecco, 320 pp., $27.99
Extra Lives: WhyVideoGames Matter
By Tom Bissell, June
Tom Bissell’s style has been compared to that of a young Hemingway. So had Hemingway spent way too much time playing World of Warcraft and Fallout 3 on Xbox, wandering through “ICBM-denuded” wastelands and cursing disembodied players named Johnny Red Pants, he might’ve come up with something like Extra Lives. Ostensibly a work of criticism and attempt to answer what a video game is, the book is also an ode to Bissell’s love-hate relationship with a maddening, invigorating new art form. Pantheon, 240 pp., $22.95
By Nicholas Carr, June
“What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation,” wrote Nicholas Carr in a 2008 Atlantic article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” on which this book is based. Among Carr’s many salient points is that Google has a financial incentive in users skimming—as opposed to reading—online texts, the better to collect advertising data. Google’s slogan remains “Don’t be evil,” but how it and the Web at large have altered our brains isn’t necessarily good. W.W. Norton, 276 pp., $26.95
Jack Kerouac and AllenGinsberg: The Letters
Edited by Bill Morgan andDavid Stanford, July
Of the 200 letters in this collection—some obviously composed on handfuls of Benzedrine—two-thirds have never before been published. There’s a lot of Buddhist theorizing to wade through, maybe, but the old magic pulls you in. Documenting the adventures of “Old Bean” (Allen) and “Jackiboo” from their days at Columbia through October 1969, weeks before Kerouac’s death, the letters form a kind of essential Beat masterpiece, and offer hilarious behind-the-scenes commentary on all the “mad ones” involved. Viking, 475 pp., $35
By Roberto Bolaño, July
Each of the stories in Bolaño’s second collection, several of which appeared in The New Yorker and Playboy, read as if it was written in one furious sitting, Bolaño’s bony hand fighting to keep pace with the relentless invention or recollection of scenes, characters, and dialogue. There are fallen women, and detectives, and dusty strung-out guys from the narrator’s past who suddenly appear, then fade into oblivion again. Somehow it all feels completely real. (His third collection, The Insufferable Gaucho, comes out in August.) New Directions, 205 pp., $23.95
Talking to Girls About Duran Duran
By Rob Sheffield, July
Most people say “Nirvana” or “grunge” when asked what defined the ’90s. Sheffield’s first memoir, Love Is a Mixtape, analyzed that connection with chatty, heart-on-the-sleeve precision. His new one candidly examines his flailing adolescence through the prism of ’80s rock hits. Your favorite Hall & Oates song, for example, determined “what kind of idiot” you were, and Paul McCartney’s “No More Lonely Nights” taught him that “not worshipping a girl was a waste of time.” Dutton, 288 pp., $25.95
By Rosanne Cash, August
Rosanne Cash was born a month before her dad’s first single, “Cry, Cry, Cry,” was released on Sun Records. The birth was apparently hell on her mom (“It sounded like a mean-spirited, medieval exercise in physical endurance,” Cash writes), and seems to have foreshadowed the emotional rockiness ahead, courtesy of JC. But Rosanne got through it, leaving behind a trail of heartrending, genre-crossing songs, all of which now look like preparation for this deeply felt and gorgeously written memoir. Viking, 253 pp., $26.95
Packing for Mars
By Mary Roach, August
Having energetically explored sex and death in three previous books (Stiff, Spook, and Bonk), bestselling author Mary Roach is now interested in space. But since NASA endlessly simulates all future space activities, it’s possible, in a sense, to visit space without ever leaving Earth. Accordingly, Roach travels to Florida and asks burning questions such as: How is the passing of bodily fluids accomplished at zero gravity? Her signature wit and optimism are here in spades. W.W. Norton, 322 pp., $25.95
By Lorenza Foschini, August
Subtitled The True Story of One Man’s Passion for All Things Proust, Foschini’s slim but vivid volume relates the story of Jacques Guerin, a collector, bibliophile, and Parisian perfume maker. Guerin rescued many of the late novelist’s possessions (overcoat, rug, drawings) from the clutches of his family, who disapproved of Marcel’s homosexual and anti-bourgeois leanings and wanted the artifacts destroyed. Considering Proust’s sympathy for the “souls trapped in inanimate objects,” Guerin did him a huge favor. Likewise Foschini in rendering his passionate, obsessive quest. Ecco, 144 pp., $19.99