I don’t think anybody should write his autobiography until after he is dead.


The first thing that strikes you about the Dead is just how many of them there are. The idea you hear bandied about that there are more people living now than have ever lived in the past is plain wrong—by a factor of thirteen. The number of Homo sapiens sapiens who have ever lived, fought, loved, fussed, and finally died over the last hundred thousand years is around 90 billion.

Ninety billion is a big number, especially when you’re trying to write a book with a title that implies it covers all of them. But it all depends how you look at things. Ninety billion is big, but also small. You could bury everyone who has ever lived, side by side, in an area the size of England and Scotland combined. Or Uruguay. Or Oklahoma. That’s just 0.1 percent of the land area of the earth. And if you piled all the dead people who have ever lived on to an enormous set of scales, they would be comfortably outweighed by the ants that are out there right now, plotting who knows what. It’s all a question of perspective.

The Dead are, literally, our family. Not just the ones we know we are related to: our two parents, four grandparents, and eight great-grandparents. Go back ten generations and each of us has a thousand direct relatives; go back fifteen and the number soars to more than thirty-five thousand (and that’s not counting aunts and uncles). In fact, we only need to go back to the year 1250 to have more direct ancestors than the number of human beings who have ever lived. The solution to this apparent paradox is that we’re all interrelated: the further back you go, the more ancestors we are likely to share. The earliest common ancestor of everyone living in Europe lived only about six hundred years ago, and everyone alive on the planet today is related to both Confucius (551–479 BC) and Nefertiti (1370–1330 BC). So this is a book of family history for everyone.

Trying to organize relatives is always a challenge. The great film director Billy Wilder once pointed out that an actor entering through a door gives the audience nothing, “but if he enters through the window, you’ve got a situation.” With this in mind, we’ve avoided the usual approach of organizing the family get-together into professional groupings: scientists, kings, business people, murderers, etc. This is a perfectly reasonable system, except that, families being what they are, the actors and musicians will be tempted to flounce past the table labeled “accountants” or “psychologists” and vice versa. So we’ve started from a different premise, selecting themes that focus on the quality of lives rather than their content, qualities that are familiar to everyone: our relationship to our parents, our state of health, our sexual appetites, our attitude to work, our sense of what it all means. We also draw no distinction between people with universally familiar names and those who are virtually unheard of. The only criterion for inclusion is interestingness. The results are unexpected bedfellows: Sir Isaac Newton duetting with Salvador Dalí, for example, or Karl Marx singing bass to Emma Hamilton’s soprano.

In E. M. Forster’s novel A Room with a View, Mr. Emerson remarks that getting through life is like “a public performance on the violin, in which you must learn the instrument as you go along.” The major attraction of the Dead is that the violin has been put back in its case, and their lives—however short, discordant, or tuneless—have a definite beginning, middle, and end. That is their chief advantage over those of us who are still trying to spot the tunes in our own swirling cacophony: We can see or hear more clearly how one thing leads to another.

The original Egyptian and Tibetan Books of the Dead were kind of early self-help manuals, practical guides to getting the best out of the afterlife. Anyone hoping for the same in the pages that follow will be disappointed (as will those looking forward to 90 billion entries in the index). This is a book that is more interested in questions than answers, and in tapping into interesting connections rather than building a closed system of classification.

Above all, there’s nothing like hanging out with the Dead to point up the sheer improbability of being alive. As the emphatically not-dead American writer Maya Angelou reminds us: “Life loves to be taken by the lapel and told: ‘I am with you kid. Let’s go.’ ”

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