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‘String theory’ may resemble Pandora’s box

Here is a question you probably have not been asked before.

“What would you do if you stepped outside one morning and found a box on your steps — or in the hallway of your apartment building — or next to your tent in the desert — containing a length of string that would indicate how long you had to live?”

That is the premise posed in a recently published novel by Nikki Erlick titled “The Measure.” The book and the question itself seem to be getting a buzz in media circles.

It was a New York Times bestseller and a featured discussion on the “Today” show with Jenna Bush Hager and Hoda Kotb. They liked the book. A lot.

A viewer reportedly asked the author, who they were interviewing, if she would open the box, and she responded with something like ... “probably not.”

I have not read this book. Yet. But I’ve read at least three reviews of this author’s “debut novel,” and the consensus from people thinking about her question seems to be: “I would not open the box.”

I posed the query in a few casual conversations this week, and my new neighbor quickly replied, “I would definitely open the box — there might be a puppy in it.” She had not read the book, either, but I want to get to know her better and add her to my list of truly interesting friends.

The author of this book is young, well-educated and well-traveled and takes her life-critical query in many directions. Several reviewers said Erlick embraced length and depth and quality of life in ways they had not thought about, which made me curious. For the past several months, I have thought about life and death a lot.

One reviewer (Leni Zumas, New York Times, Aug. 7, 2022) posed her own more specific questions: “What if you were told the year, the month and even the day? How would that change your life?”

This particular reviewer also offered detail on how the “string theory” narrative evolved, noting that, in the novel, everyone in the world over age 21 receives a container with a length of string that is short, medium or long. Some people open their boxes; others discard them.

The dilemmas posed for characters in the book who open their containers are many and varied. In a romance, where one string is much shorter than the other, the couple debates whether to marry and have children. In another illustration, “short-stringers” start being maligned, and “prejudice gains traction.”

“The Measure” gives a reader the angles on several characters, “alternating viewpoints at a brisk, staccato clip.” This reviewer touted the book as escape fiction with the “the comfort of the imaginary.” Another reviewer said the book was a reminder “all moments, big and small, measure life.”

At this point in writing my column about this particular book, which I have not read and was not sure I wanted to read, I pause and order it from Amazon Kindle. I definitely need contemplative escape.

By the way, I have already decided, I would definitely open the box.

Sharon Johnson is a retired educator. Reach her at sharjohn99@gmail.com