Joel M. Levin’s Beyond the Sea of Life on a Bridge Called Why is a sort of philosophical investigation of existential questions presented in an imaginative literary format.
Using the metaphor of life as a voyage, Levin imagines a series of individual passengers on a timeless and imaginary vessel, recounting their experiences as immigrants to America under different political, social, and historical circumstances and examining what leads them to believe as they do. He challenges readers to imagine whether it makes sense for them to believe in an afterlife. From there, he extends beyond their individual stories to delve into a series of topics that include overpopulation, climate change, the rise of robotics and artificial intelligence, threats of infectious disease, and ultimately whether one should believe in the existence of a higher power.
The underlying urgency of Levin’s work, by his own account, derives from experiencing the loss of his wife, and this lends his questions earnestness and immediacy. That, coupled with his uniquely personal approach of sketching biographies (which turn out to be based on real life) and situating life’s big questions in relation to lived experiences of people from varied backgrounds lends Beyond the Sea of Life a fresh perspective that sets it apart.
Unfortunately, the first half of Levin’s book—containing the biographical sketches—is considerably more affecting than the latter. His talent for generating empathy and identification with diverse experiences, and his eye for the details of those experiences, is excellent. But when he diverges from this format into more general questions, it feels like a different book, a more traditional work of social philosophy largely divorced from the project he started with. He attempts to stretch his metaphorical voyage to encompass both, with mixed results.
Levin embarks confidently navigating choppy seas, but in the end he seems to get washed away by all the ideas he wants to explore. Still, some readers will appreciate the many perspectives presented here.
Also available in hardcover and ebook.