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Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives Paperback – January 12, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Sum In the afterlife you relive all your experiences, but this time with the events reshuffled into a new order: all the moments that share a quality are grouped together.You spend two months driving the street in front of your house, seven months having sex. You sleep for thirty years without opening your eyes. For five months straight you flip through magazines while sitting on a toilet.You take all your pain at once, all twenty-seven intense hours of it. Bones break, cars crash, skin is cut, babies are born. Once you make it through, it’s agony-free for the rest of your afterlife.But that doesn’t mean it’s always pleasant. You spend six days clipping your nails. Fifteen months looking for lost items. Eighteen months waiting inline. Two years of boredom: staring out a bus window, sitting in an airport terminal. One year reading books. Your eyes hurt, and you itch, because you can’t take a shower until it’s your time to take your marathon two-hundred-day shower. Two weeks wondering what happens when you die. One minute realizing your body is falling. Seventy-seven hours of confusion. One hour realizing you’ve forgotten someone’s name. Three weeks realizing you are wrong. Two days lying. Six weeks waiting for a green light. Seven hours vomiting. Fourteen minutes experiencing pure joy. Three months doing laundry. Fifteen hours writing your signature. Two days tying shoelaces. Sixty-seven days of heartbreak. Five weeks driving lost. Three days calculating restaurant tips. Fifty-one days deciding what to wear. Nine days pretending you know what is being talked about. Two weeks counting money. Eighteen days staring into the refrigerator. Thirty-four days longing. Six months watching commercials. Four weeks sitting in thought, wondering if there is something better you could be doing with your time. Three years swallowing food. Five days working buttons and zippers. Four minutes wondering what your life would be like if you reshuffled the order of events. In this part of the afterlife, you imagine something analogous to your Earthly life, and the thought is blissful: a life where episodes are split into tiny swallowable pieces, where moments do not endure, where one experiences the joy of jumping from one event to the next like a child hopping from spot to spot on the burning sand.EgalitaireIn the afterlife you discover that God understands the complexities of life. She had originally submitted to peer pressure when She structured Her universe like all the other gods had, with a binary categorization of people into good and evil. But it didn’t take long for Her to realize that humans could be good in many ways and simultaneously corrupt and meanspirited in other ways. How was She to arbitrate who goes to Heaven and who to Hell? Might not it be possible, She considered, that a man could be an embezzler and still give to charitable causes? Might not a woman be an adulteress but bring pleasure and security to two men’s lives? Might not a child unwittingly divulge secrets that splinter a family? Dividing the population into two categories—good and bad—seemed like a more reasonable task when She was younger, but with experience these decisions became more difficult. She composed complex formulas to weigh hundreds of factors, and ran computer programs that rolled out long strips of paper with eternal decisions. But Her sensitivities revolted at this automation—and when the computer generated a decision She disagreed with, She took the opportunity to kick out the plug in rage. That afternoon She listened to the grievances of the dead from two warring nations. Both sides had suffered, both sides had legitimate grievances, both pled their cases earnestly. She covered Her ears and moaned in misery. She knew Her humans were multidimensional, and She could no longer live under the rigid architecture of Her youthful choices.Not all gods suffer over this; we can consider ourselves lucky that in death we answer to a God with deep sensitivity to the byzantine hearts of Her creations. For months She moped around Her living room in Heaven, head drooped like a bulrush, while the lines piled up. Her advisors advised Her to delegate the decision making, but She loved Her humans too much to leave them to the care of anyone else.In a moment of desperation the thought crossed Her mind to let everyone wait on line indefinitely, letting them work it out on their own. But then a better idea struck Her generous spirit. She could afford it: She would grant everyone, every last human, a place in Heaven. After all, everyone had something good inside; it was part of the design specifications. Her new plan brought back the bounce to Her gait, returned the color to Her cheeks. She shut down the operations in Hell, fired the Devil, and brought every last human to be by Her side in Heaven. Newcomers or old-timers, nefarious or righteous: under the new system, everyone gets equal time to speak with Her. Most people find Her a little garrulous and oversolicitous, but She cannot be accused of not caring.The most important aspect of Her new system is that everyone is treated equally. There is no longer fire for some and harp music for others. The afterlife is no longer defined by cots versus waterbeds, raw potatoes versus sushi, hot water versus champagne. Everyone is a brother to all, and for the first time an idea has been realized that never came to fruition on Earth: true equality.The Communists are baffled and irritated, because they have finally achieved their perfect society, but only by the help of a God in whom they don’t want to believe. The meritocrats are abashed that they’re stuck for eternity in an incentiveless system with a bunch of pinkos. The conservatives have no penniless to disparage; the liberals have no downtrodden to promote.So God sits on the edge of Her bed and weeps at night, because the only thing everyone can agree upon is that they’re all in Hell.Circle of FriendsWhen you die, you feel as though there were some subtle change, but everything looks approximately the same. You get up and brush your teeth. You kiss your spouse and kids and leave for the office. There is less traffic than normal. The rest of your building seems less full, as though it’s a holiday. But everyone in your office is here, and they greet you kindly. You feel strangely popular. Everyone you run into is someone you know. At some point, it dawns on you that this is the afterlife: the world is only made up of people you’ve met before.It’s a small fraction of the world population—about 0.00002 percent—but it seems like plenty to you.It turns out that only the people you remember are here. So the woman with whom you shared a glance in the elevator may or may not be included. Your second-grade teacher is here, with most of the class. Your parents, your cousins, and your spectrum of friends through the years. All your old lovers. Your boss, your grandmothers, and the waitress who served your food each day at lunch. Those you dated, those you almost dated, those you longed for. It is a blissful opportunity to spend quality time with your one thousand connections, to renew fading ties, to catch up with those you let slip away.It is only after several weeks of this that you begin to feel forlorn. You wonder what’s different as you saunter through the vast quiet parks with a friend or two. No strangers grace the empty park benches. No family unknown to you throws bread crumbs for the ducks and makes you smile because of their laughter.As you step into the street, you note there are no crowds, no buildings teeming with workers, no distant cities bustling, no hospitals running 24/7 with patients dying and staff rushing, no trains howling into the night with sardined passengers on their way home. Very few foreigners. You begin to consider all the things unfamiliar to you. You’ve never known, you realize, how to vulcanize rubber to make a tire. And now those factories stand empty. You’ve never known how to fashion a silicon chip from beach sand, how to launch rockets out of the atmosphere, how to pit olives or lay railroad tracks. And now those industries are shut down.The missing crowds make you lonely.You begin to complain about all the people you could be meeting. But no one listens or sympathizes with you, because this is precisely what you chose when you were alive.Descent of SpeciesIn the afterlife, you are treated to a generous opportunity: you can choose whatever you would like to be in the next life. Would you like to be a member of the opposite sex? Born into royalty? A philosopher with bottomless profundity? A soldier facing triumphant battles?But perhaps you’ve just returned here from a hard life. Perhaps you were tortured by the enormity of the decisions and responsibilities that surrounded you, and now there’s only one thing you yearn for: simplicity. That’s permissible. So for the next round, you choose to be a horse. You covet the bliss of that simple life: afternoons of grazing in grassy fields, the handsome angles of your skeleton and the prominence of your muscles, the peace of the slow-flicking tail or the steam rifling through your nostrils as you lope across snow-blanketed plains.You announce your decision. Incantations are muttered, a wand is waved, and your body begins to metamorphose into a horse. Your muscles start to bulge; a mat of strong hair erupts to cover you like a comfortable blanket in winter. The thickening and lengthening of your neck immediately feels normal as it comes about. Your carotid arteries grow in diameter, your fingers blend hoofward, your knees stiffen, your hips strengthen, 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 the distance. Your concern about human affairs begins to slip away, your cynicism about human behavior melts, and even your human way of thinking begins to drift away from you.Suddenly, for just a moment, you are aware of the problem you overlooked. The more you become a horse, the more you forget the original wish. You forget what it was like to be a human wondering what it was like to be a horse. This moment of lucidity does not last long. But it serves as the punishment for your sins, a Promethean entrails-pecking moment, crouching half-horse halfman, with the knowledge that you cannot appreciate the destination without knowing the starting point; you cannot revel in the simplicity unless you remember the alternatives. And that’s not the worst of your revelation. You realize that the next time you return here, with your thick horse brain, you won’t have the capacity to ask to become a human again. You won’t understand what a human is. Your choice to slide down the intelligence ladder is irreversible. And just before you lose your final human faculties, you painfully ponder what magnificent extraterrestrial creature, enthralled with the idea of finding a simpler life, chose in the last round to become a human.

About the Author

DAVID EAGLEMAN is a neuroscientist, a Guggenheim Fellow, and a New York Times bestselling author. His books have been translated into 27 languages. Eagleman heads the Laboratory for Perception and Action at Baylor College of Medicine, and is the founding Director of the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law. He is the author and presenter of the PBS series The Brain.  At night he writes fiction.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 128 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; 1st edition (January 12, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307389936
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307389930
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.4 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (280 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #26,786 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
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?
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Format: Paperback
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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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