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Don't fear the reaper

Montreal author searches for the secret to living forever

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Human beings are the only creatures -- as far as we know -- who live their lives with the awareness that one day they will die.

This realization has sometimes led the human psyche into dark and strange places. There have always been those who are not willing to accept the inevitable. As a result, the search for immortality is probably as old as the realization of our own inevitable demise.

Montreal author, journalist and musician Adam Leith Gollner has tackled the fascinating notion of immortality in this, his second book. His first non-fiction effort was The Fruit Hunters in 2008.

Gollner starts by asking the opinion of various religious representatives, such as a rabbi and the Sufi adherents at a Montreal mosque. He then journeys to visit his former professor, a Jesuit priest who had taught him film studies a decade earlier, but who now lives with Alzheimer's.

Especially in this section, Gollner's journey is not linear; it meanders and flows, like the water often used to symbolize endless death and rebirth. Here the distinction is made between belief in some type of afterlife, which is a religious, or spiritual, immortality, and physical immortality.

There is much more to be said about our efforts to be young forever. His journey leads him to the site of the "genuine" Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine, Fla. Ostensibly discovered by the Spanish explorer Ponce de Le�n in 1513, he finds the fountain, and its story, to be less than impressive -- especially when he's told it's one of several in the area.

His luck changes when he learns the magician David Copperfield has discovered the "real" fountain of youth, and he expends great effort to interview Copperfield and, more important, visit the fountain itself.

The fountain is located somewhere on an 11-island archipelago in the Bahamas, now owned by Copperfield. However, until testing is completed, Copperfield is reluctant to co-operate and let anyone visit the fountain.

Gollner really hits his stride when looking at our historical efforts to live forever from a more scientific point of view. Those first efforts were more alchemical in nature, and certain elixirs such as mercury and cinnabar probably hastened death, rather than postponed it.

Even today's efforts fall short. Some modern research involves genuine scientific discoveries, such as stem cells and telomeres, but others, such as cryonics or having our memories uploaded into computers, are really more fantasy than reality.

It appears the ability not only to live forever, but also to significantly extend the human lifespan, continues to elude us.

Sadly, the search for eternal youth remains a bastion of caveat emptor, where the unscrupulous (or simply deluded) still prey upon the gullible, greedy and credulous.

Gollner definitely has a gift for a pleasing turn of phrase. Generally, his writing is descriptive and does well in setting a scene and mood. At times his prose is lyrical, which is why the very rare clunkers drop like rocks on a tin roof.

Ultimately, anyone who reads this book hoping for confirmation that immortality is possible will be deeply disappointed. Spiritual immortality remains a personal belief, while physical immortality is no more than an illusion.

One minor quibble with Gollner's premise is he assumes that everyone wants to live forever, which is not the case. There are certainly many who accept our time here is short, hence, too valuable to waste.

But those who wish to spend some of that time reading this book will have much to think about, and probably won't regret it.


Donna Harris, who edits the Manitoba Humanist newsletter, does not believe in an afterlife.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 24, 2013 A1

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