There’s only one thing in your life that you’ve never yet done but are guaranteed to do. It is our single greatest unsolved mystery and therefore causes a lot of anxiety and a lot of speculation. Some of us think about it often, perhaps more often than we realize. And our collective theories, beliefs, and fascinations abound. Scientist, scholar, inventor, and prolific author Clifford A. Pickover, who has written more than fifty books about science, religion, math, history, and art, has given us a handsome and thoughtful guide to some of our notions about death.
Beautifully hardbound with a whimsical, tactilely pleasing cover that will look great on any shelf, this book is a serious, abridged encyclopedia of the macabre. It’s the full stew simmered down to a tasty reduction, and it gives you an amuse-bouche of fact, philosophy, and art, while acknowledging that there is so much more out there on which to dine. Given the bite-sized morsels, you could take a nip of this book here and there, but more likely you’ll devour it in large chunks.
There is a lot in this book you already know about, or think you do. But there is a lot to learn as well. For instance, as the guillotine head-chopping craze struck late 1790s France, children played with guillotine toys and young women wore guillotine-shaped earrings. (Now there’s an Etsy idea for you.) From necromancy and thanatourism to kamikaze pilots, sin-eaters, and walking corpse syndrome, Pickover chooses topics wisely from art, literature, science, and our daily traditions from all walks of life throughout time and the globe over. He can’t cover everything, but what he does serve us is well researched and presented, and could easily set you on a path of further discovery.
Rather than alphabetical order, the author has chosen a more unusual chronological structure. This might seem odd at first, but it’s interesting to hang our death-related ideas and practices on a timeline of human creation. And the table of contents and index are sufficient for finding what you want to read about. Perhaps best of all, each selection is accompanied by a related piece of art that best represents the topic. Paintings, such as Death and the Miser by master-of-the-creepy, Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch, and photographs, such as the first death certificate of a person killed in a motor vehicle accident, are morbid and delightful decoration. The cover design is what drew me to this book, but I look forward to exploring more of Clifford A. Pickover’s work along the fringe intersections of science and art.
Skip the bottle of wine for that Halloween dinner party and bring this for the host instead. It’s a little bit different, a little bit ghoulish, and a great deal of fun.
– Aaron Downey
Death and the Afterlife: A Chronological Journey, from Cremation to Quantum Resurrection
by Clifford A. Pickover
2015, 224 pages, 6.9 x 8.8 x 1.1 inches