I'm a neuroscientist during the day and a writer at night. As a believer in the endeavor of popular science, I travel frequently to give public lectures. It has been an incredible pleasure to meet warm, funny, like-minded readers everywhere I visit.
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.
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?Read more ›
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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.Read more ›
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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