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on February 13, 2009
Occasionally a book comes along of such originality that it stops you in your tracks, of such sharpness that it makes you think again about so many things and of such warmth that it makes you want to share it with everyone you meet. David Eagleman's Sum is just such a book.

Ostensibly a book about what happens after we die, ironically Sum is really an examination of what it means to live. After all the divide is perhaps not as great as we think and as John Keats once wrote, "Life is but a Waking Dream."

In the course of these 40 imaginings of the afterlife, Eagleman takes you on a long and varied emotional journey. Some of the Sums are absurd and surreal, others are poigant and poetic, others are funny and wild, some are neurologically cutting edge while others are dreamily abstract. It's an astonishing feat of the mind and to top it all, they are all written is this clear and limpid prose that is a joy and completely effortless to read.

I have a feeling that this book is going to become one of these word of mouth sleeper hits. There are at least 20 people I plan to give it to straight away and everyone I have read snippets of it to has immediately responded to its humanity and humour.

I'm sure that at least one or two of reviewers of this book will be tempted to write, "Greater than the Sum of its parts", because that is exactly what it is. Enjoy and dream and smile and weep.
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VINE VOICEon February 24, 2009
We live in a universe that doesn't simply lay its mysteries at our feet. Mystics, philosophers, theologians, and scientists all, in their own way, posit theories, beliefs, and "knowledge," about the existence of God and an afterlife. This inherent confusion opens the door for further "what ifs" about who, what, where, and when runs our cosmos and what kind of "life" might follow physical mortality. Neuro-scientist David Eagleman has seen his opportunity to contribute to the melee. His Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives plunges right in, brashly inventing new benchmarks for Divine behavior and eternal life. This small book of only 110 pages brims over with ideas as each vignette envisions a different, often ironic and amusing, afterlife.

For instance, there is "Distance" which allows "us" to ask God face to face why He lives in a palace far, far away instead of " 'in the trenches with us.' " God replies he used to live among us, but " '[o]ne morning I awoke to find people picketing in front of my driveway.' "

And "Circle of Friends" tells of an afterlife in which each person exists on an earth peopled only by those he or she knew in life -- for most people about "0.00002 percent of the world's population. "The missing crowds make you lonely."

Eagleman's biological expertise makes stories such as "Descent of Species" especially lucid and rich reading. The former asks what would happen to a weary sentient being -- say, you -- who decides to reincarnate as a lower species -- say a horse. What would happen to your capacity to make a higher choice during the next life/death cycle? After all: "The thickening and lengthening of your neck immediately feels normal as it comes about. Your carotid arteries grow in diameter, your fingers blend hoofward...and meanwhile, as your skull lengthens into its new shape, your brain races in its changes: your cortex retreats as your cerebellum grows, the homunculus melts man to horse, neurons redirect, synapses unplug and replug on their way to equestrian patterns, and your dream of understanding what it is like to be a horse gallops toward you from a distance. Your concern about human affairs begins to slip away...."

One of the most intriguing tales is "Mary" in which Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein (Enriched Classics), sits on a throne in heaven because God so admires her book: "Like Victor Frankenstein, God....has much to say about bringing animation to the unanimated. Very few of His creatures had thought deeply about the challenges of creating, and it relieved Him a little of the loneliness of His position when Mary wrote her book."

SUM is not a conventional religious book per se because it bursts out of established religious thought instead of reinforcing it. These tales conjure versions of the Supreme Being who have more in common with the foible Greek and Norse gods or us than with an image of an omniscient, omnipotent God. These imaginary Capital Beings cry, feel depressed and disappointed, and are uncertain and ignorant. They aren't the emblems of rectitude and glory usually portrayed by Western churches. These are a scientist's fabulous imaginings, not a parson's or a priest's.

This is also a humanist collection. SUM contains forty fables complete with subtle but unmistakable messages about living and loving in the here and now. For example, a person who isn't naturally gregarious who reads "A Circle of Friends" might begin to socialize more. Reading "Descent of Species" is apt to encourage people not to look the gift "horse" of their human life in the mouth....

SUM broadens our spiritual vision as it shines a witty light on forty postmortem worlds that each reach out in clever Aesopian admonition. Plus, it's just fun, fast reading. Don't miss it.
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on April 12, 2010
This is a short book of 40 tales expousing Eagleman's 'Possibilian' (a neologism he has coined) view of afterlife. Possibilianism is predicated on the assumption that we know far too much to believe in standard religion anymore, given that many core religious texts were written by sand dwelling shepherd type people who knew little outside village, crop and flock, let alone science and metaphysics; and far too little to commit to full blown atheism - given the vast range and scale of the universe, as recent scientific research is uncovering.

Fact is, the wider mysteries of life cannot be solved. So this leaves plenty of scope for imagination. What if, in the aferlife, you meet all alternative versions of yourself - people who took the path you didn't take, versions of yourself who worked a little harder, who pursued that girl a little more forcefully. How would that feel? What if, in the afterlife, you meet God, but he is not the all powerful beast of the Christian religion but a rather confused man who realises the game is up - humans have outsmarted him on all his big conceits, they know more than he ever expected and he can't play the same fear trick as he did in the Old Testament?

Sum is 40 such stories. Some are brilliant - such as story one, where all your life episodes are rearranged in compartmentalised order: 3 years of showering, 2 weeks of pain, three months of looking for stuff etc. Some are quirky neuroscience ideas that don't quite fly off the page.

If you want to find out more about this possiblianism idea, I suggest both reading this book and looking at the clip on Will Self's website of Will Self interviewing David Eagleman about this book, and ideas about the afterlife. Eagleman comes across as an eager young pup who, at his stage of life (38 years old), can happily contemplate the afterlife as a whimsical intellectual exercise. He is not yet old enough to feel the dark chill of extinction, and the personal realisaton that the sands of one's own time on earth are about to run out.
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on February 15, 2009
SUM is both poignant and thought-provoking, while avoiding all the historical pitfalls of literature on the subject of death and the afterlife. Not preachy or pretentious, SUM is essentially a page-turner, but a page-turner that one revisits time and time again to savor a missed allusion or a significant observation.

Each alternate explanation of the hereafter is a fresh look at life and the living, communicated through a unique voice. Some heart-wrenching, some playful- none trite and all witty. Eagleman truly has a special gift for boiling concepts and ideas down to their simplest form, and in SUM, he has written something that will speak to each and every one of us. It is a book that can not only entertain, but also spark new lines of thought and imagination.

Upon mentioning the book to a new acquaintance, he replied that 3 of his friends had read it and were buying copies for all their friends- his own was sitting out in his car. And how often are people so moved to share a piece of literature that they buy copies for all their friends? I think this only speaks to SUMS' brilliance, creativity, and singularity.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon September 27, 2013
Open this slim, delightful, and clever book and take a journey inside the mind of David Eagleman, a remarkable modern-day renaissance man. Eagleman is a brilliant, accomplished neuroscientist who also happens to have a B. A. in British and American literature. He has both a fierce love for literature and an insatiable scientific curiosity. He is also the kind of all-around normal type of guy who makes a stand-out charming guest on "The Colbert Report." This background is a marvelous brew and makes any journey through his gifted brain a unique intellectual delight.

In this book, Eagleman sets his prodigious creative genius to the task of imagining a set of forty different fates that might await us in the afterlife. These forty vignettes are fantasies; he's not serious. It's probably best to think of them as "thought experiments." Certainly, most were done for fun; however, in some cases, along the way, some significant and profound ideas are uncovered.

The book is only 128 pages, but it is one of those svelte beauties that is best read a little at a time; in fact, if you try to read too many of these brief narratives in one sitting, the vignettes start to fade and lose their luster. Eagleman is a powerful prose stylist; he has obviously read a great deal of fine literature and knows how to put words together effectively. Many of the tales would be very entertaining if read out loud at a social gathering.

Because Eagleman is a scientist, it is not surprising that many of the forty afterlife narratives contain parodies of well-accepted scientific research processes; they are like insider jokes. Scientists will see themselves in these vignettes and laugh at their hubris.

I'm glad I have this work in electronic form on my Kindle. I have a feeling that I'll enjoy revisiting these essays from time to time when I need something brief, clever, and whimsical to fill my time.

I heartily recommend this book to anyone with an inquisitive mind and an offbeat sense of humor.

[You might wonder how I know so much about the author. It is because I am in the process of researching and writing a report on his life and achievements for a class I'm taking on the book, "This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking." I recommend that book, too!]
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on September 28, 2009
Great things come in small packages in David Eagleman's fiction debut Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives. A neuroscientist at Baylor College, Eagleman, who already hasseveral work of nonfictin to his name, took 7 years to write this 100 page wonder of 40 vignettes (which was originally 70 stories).

But don't let the number of pages fool you. This is a metaphysical literary achievement told with wit, intelligence, and a complete understanding of human nature. Among the afterlives Eagleman envisions are a life where you relive all of your events, but reshuffled ("Sum"), a life where you play the background characters of other people's dreams (The Cast), a quiet afterlife that is merely put on pause, as humanity sleeps till its death (Conservation) Eagleman's meditation on god, life, the nature of the universe and human nature are poetically written to make you all at once cry and laugh at how wise and honest it is.

One of the hidden gems of the year, Stephen Fry recommended it on Twitter, and even without his applause, this book is an absolute must read.
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on April 4, 2009
I heard and interview with the author on the radio and was intrigued enough to pick it up. It is a collection of vignettes each describing a possible afterlife. While they are all thoroughly thought out, they are not very long. I found some quite profound and provocative, many amusingly interesting, and a few somewhat lame.
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on February 28, 2011
Have you ever pictured God sitting on the edge of Her bed at night, weeping because people aren't content in heaven? Or that He is too small to even be aware of our existence? Or that God's favorite book might be Frankenstein because He feels that Shelley is the only human to truly understand the mixture of emotions that comes with the creating of beings that didn't turn out the way you had hoped?

Each of these forty afterlives is described in a quick 2 - 3 pages. But that doesn't mean the book should be read as quickly as that might suggest. These are pieces of gristle to chew on, because the first step, each time, is letting go of everything you thought you knew.
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on February 14, 2009
Sum is brilliant, and I think it's destined to go down as one of the greatest works of all time.

The more I read it, the more I enjoy it, like listening to my favorite song over and over again. And, I think that makes sense, because the book is about the essence of living, using these stories to explore the preciousness of life and the nuanced relationship between ourselves, our dreams, and our mortality.

As a literary work, it's brilliant. The language is captivating, and densely packed with gems that offer you beautiful, new ways of looking at the world.

As a philosophical work, it's revolutionary. Each chapter presents a novel way of looking at some of the oldest, deepest questions in philosophy.

And, as a work of fiction, it's addictive. Reading Sum for the first time is like being introduced to an amazing, gourmet food that you've never tasted before, and each time I re-read a chapter, I feel like I'm savoring the food again.
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HALL OF FAMEon January 12, 2011
What an interesting idea. We all wish to know what, if anything, will happen when we die. The great Maimonedes, the first of all Jewish philosophers thought it mistaken and senseless to speculate about what we could not really know about. This is perhaps because he had a conception of Truth which meant he was not simply looking for a play of possibilities. Eagelman is not aiming at finding the single exclusive truth. His small story- essays are really games of a kind, little plays made up in his mind. But his mind is a special one as he is a well- known neuroscientist with a strong literary bent. So his little vignettes, essays, stories turn out to be often extremely interesting and informative. He opens with one in which the Afterlife consists in our having at one time all the time we did a particular activity or had a certain experience. All the moments of Pain are taken together as are all the moments of going to the Toilet. In another of the stories the Afterlife confines us to those people we knew in this world. There are no new faces and friends in the 'afterlife' and that makes in a sense a bit boring. One reviewer of these essays says that they really are a very intelligent reflection of this life, and not the afterlife. I would agree with that in regard to many of the essays. Eagleman enables us to see limitations in our own worlds and in our dreams.
As a game and as a fiction this work is first- rate. However in being a play and being a game it fails in one critical way. It does not do what it cannot possibly do i.e. really tell us what the Afterlife will be. For that we will have to get there, and then it might well turn out to be even stranger and more surprising than David Eagleman's finest and most interesting dreams.
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