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An Existential Detective Story

by Jim Holt

Pub Date: July 16th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-871-40409-1
Publisher: Liveright/Norton

A guided tour of ideas, theories and arguments about the origins of the universe.

Any book with such a title is bound to raise at least as many questions as it tries to answer. “I cannot help feeling astonished that I exist,” writes Holt, “that the universe has come to produce these very thoughts now bubbling up in my stream of consciousness.” With too much abstract theory, the author runs the risk of the narrative collapsing under its own weight. However, if he moves too far in the other direction, rigorous exploration gives way to platitudes. Holt finds the right recipe, combining a wide variety of subjects in his exploration of his “improbable existence.” The author lists his background as an "essayist and critic on philosophy, math, and science," which could serve as the boiled-down review of this book, as he draws from those three disciplines and others and respectfully does not shy away from posing thoughtful, difficult questions to his interview subjects. Through discussions with philosophers of religion and science, humanists, biologists, string theorists, as well as research into the scholarship of days past—from Heidegger, Parmenides, Pythagoras and others—and an interview with John Updike, Holt provides a master's-level course on the theories and their detractors. The interludes find the author positioning himself as an existential gumshoe, but also working through the sudden loss of a pet and, later, the death of his mother.

Holt may not answer the question of his title, but his book deepens the appreciation of the mystery.