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Ken Jennings knows about everything. That now includes the afterlife

Ken Jennings loves to think about stuff.
Faith Jennings
/
Courtesy of Scribner
Ken Jennings loves to think about stuff.

Well, he has at least tried to get a solid grasp of death lately.

Who is he? You might know Ken Jennings as the Jeopardy! genius-turned host. But he's also an author, and a guy who really wants to know stuff.

  • Jennings rose to prominence as a contestant on the game show starting in the mid 2000s, becoming one of the highest earning winners to ever compete, amassing millions of dollars.
  • Since then, he's become a fixture in the Jeopardy! universe. Jennings is a host for the show, as well as the author of many books covering history, humor, and now, what we can learn from our understandings of afterlife.
  • What's the big deal? Jennings' new book, 100 Places to See After You Die: A Travel Guide to the Afterlife, takes on his knowledge of just about everything, and attempts to extend it to the great unknown: death.

  • The book focuses on the afterlife — including heaven, hell and everything in between — as depicted in religion, pop culture, literature and more. 
  • Jennings' research spanned from reading and analyzing descriptions of hell from ancient Tibet, to watching The Good Place, and parsing what these portrayals could tell us about humanity, religion and what we feel about the great beyond.
  • <em>100 Places to See After You Die: A Travel Guide to the Afterlife</em>
    / Courtesy of Scribner
    /
    Courtesy of Scribner
    100 Places to See After You Die: A Travel Guide to the Afterlife

    What are people saying? Jennings spoke with NPR about his fascination with the unknown, and what he learned about the afterlife.

    On the research process:

    Just like any traveler, I enjoyed revisiting some of my favorite afterlives. I mean, it's not really a book about death, honestly. It's a book about pop culture. And so it was a joy to me to revisit the creepy room with the little person from Twin Peaks or the disappointing afterlife in the last episode of Lost or Beetlejuice or the cornfields from Field of Dreams

    I mean, a lot of these afterlives bring with them the fond memories we have when we first experience them as viewers or listeners. And it was a pleasure to see those. But then there were the new discoveries, the places I didn't know and the surprises there. You know, the bureaucratic hell of ancient China, for example, which I didn't know anything about. Or J.R.R. Tolkien going back and forth on whether it's pagan for him to send his human characters to heaven or not. 

    He doesn't appear to have any Christian scruples about sending elves and dwarves to have pagan afterlife. But he seems worried that he's going to be [in trouble] with God if he sends his human characters to a made up mythological afterlife. So he's wrestling with that as he's writing his books.

    On what he learned on the afterlife:

    I don't want to be reductive about it, but I think all of our visions of the afterlife come from our fears about death, either our own or, in particular, those of our loved ones. 

    We don't want to imagine that they're gone and that we'll never see them again. But, you know, when I was young, I grew up with this Gen X childhood of a world full of mysteries of the unexplained. You know, Time-Life books about who built the pyramids and UFOs and the Bermuda Triangle and all this stuff. 

    And I always was just fascinated by the idea of life after death, because it seemed like it was the greatest one of these mysteries ... Unlike Bigfoot, you know, it was universal. What does happen to me? What is life beyond death, if anything? But it was also just so tantalizing because, presumably billions of people who had gone before now either know the answer or don't. And yet word has not gotten back to us. So I realized then that a lot of our fascination with the afterlife is not just us working through our issues about death. It's not just neurosis. It's also the fact that we love a mystery. And this is the biggest mystery of all. 


    Want more on spirituality? Listen to Consider This on the movement within Islam to refer to Allah as 'she'.


    So, what now?

  • Jennings says the process of writing the book has given him a new perspective on not just death, but the expectations our art has portrayed surrounding it:
  • "Researching over 100 afterlives for the book made me think seriously about the whole concept. And obviously as a modern, fairly rationalist thinker, it doesn't seem impossible that there's nothing at all," he said. "But from a literary perspective, from an aesthetic perspective, you don't want to believe that, you want the craziest flights of fancy from every afterlife novel you ever read, or TV show, or movie you've ever watched. You want those to be possibilities."
  • Learn more:

  • Here are 19 books our critics are excited for this summer
  • Cormac McCarthy, American novelist of the stark and dark, dies at 89
  • Elizabeth Gilbert halts release of a new book after outcry over its Russian setting
  • Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Manuela López Restrepo
    Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.