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Book review: Christopher Hitchens’ ‘Mortality’ and Eben Alexander’s ‘Proof of Heaven’

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The Details

Proof of Heaven
One and a half stars
By Eben Alexander, $16

The Details

Mortality
Four stars
By Christopher Hitchens, $23

Toward the end of 2012, Simon & Schuster and Hachette published two short books about death and what happens (or doesn’t) after it. The first, Mortality by Christopher Hitchens, chronicles a skeptic’s battle with cancer—Hitchens knows there’s no afterlife, that this is it. The second, Dr. Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, recounts the detailed visions of a Harvard M.D. after a sudden illness hijacks his brain.

The books couldn’t be more different. Hitchens is an atheist; Alexander is a believer. Hitchens battles death head on; Alexander is unconscious for the battle—it’s his family that does the suffering. Hitchens dies at the end; Alexander makes a near-full recovery.

Though Hitchens “came to consciousness feeling as if [he] were actually shackled to [his] own corpse,” he stays positive during the bulk of his chemo treatments, no small task considering so many Christians were actively rooting for the cancer (Hitchens was a lifelong, outspoken atheist). Mortality isn’t a fun book, and it’s only occasionally funny, but it’s honest and raw and worth reading.

Where Hitchens’ illness progresses slowly, one morning Alexander is fine, the next he’s unconscious. He has bacterial meningitis-encephalitis, a ruthless killer, but it doesn’t kill Alexander. While in a coma, he has intense, detailed visions of soaring over beautiful landscapes and gardens and of being guided by a familiar-looking little girl. Alexander says the experience was more real than reality, then concludes, with absolutely no connective reasoning, that heaven therefore exists.

It doesn’t make sense to me, but it sure is uplifting. Maybe that’s why Proof of Heaven was a No. 1 best-seller and Mortality wasn’t.

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