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Sum by David Eagleman

Sum: 40 Tales From the Afterlives

Sum: 40 Tales From the Afterlives by David Eagleman - Hardcover - 2009 - 107 pages - $29.98 from

Returning to the themes of Mary Roach’s Stiff for a moment, I thought it might be prudent to examine the possible options for your less physical remains.

Sum: 40 Tales From the Afterlives by David Eagleman takes forty possible scenarios of what might happen to you or your soul, your intellect, your essence or whatever and turns each into a vignette of delicate exploration.

On their own one suspects they may resemble slightly half-baked or underdeveloped ideas, but the strength of this little book is in the actual exercise of exploring the variety of postulations.

The book is more of an invitation to stop for a moment and think about your assumptions, or your own feelings about what might or might not await any part of you that may continue experience sentience after your body ceases to function.

If you don’t have assumptions or guesses or a faith to inform or direct your feelings about the afterlife, this may be the perfect book for as through its forty little lenses you are sure to glimpse at least one idea that tickles your fancy.

You may well not agree with any of the possibilities explored in David Eagleman’s book, but that doesn’t really matter. In this kind of metaphysical realm it can be just as advantageous to figure out what you don’t believe as what you do – to define where some of your boundaries are, even if you are not fully sure what it is you are building that boundary around.

David Eagleman is a very bright guy. He is a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, where he directs the Laboratory for Perception and Action and the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law – which I’m sure makes him a pretty sharp tack.

David Eagleman

David Eagleman - a bright guy

One ancilliary point of interest about the title story SUM which essentially lists how long the average person will spend doing essentially mundane tasks over the course of the average life-time.

7 hours vomiting? Now I may have been an especially gastric infant but I’ve hardly ever hurled bile as an adult and am now left wondering if I’ve some serious ground to make up – and am not looking forward to it.

And only 14 minutes experiencing pure joy? Does this still apply to the e-generation? Similarly if I feel I’ve lead a particularly joyful live thus far, does this mean either that nothing but stoic grimness to look forward to, or am I instead eating into the allocation of some other poor unknown malcontent?

So is this book more than literary collection of Twilight Zone plot lines? Not in the least.

The real point of Sum: 40 Tales from the Afterlives, however, is more about science and the tyranny of western empiricism. Science has not explained the world, only little bits of it. The book is in some way a celebration of the unknown and of the boundlessness of possibility itself. Eagleman’s skill is in his extrapolation – each story fits neatly inside its own unique and interesting internal logic.

Indeed David Eagleman himself has proposed that rather than “agnostic”, he prefers the idea of “Possibilians” to try to encompass and acknowledge the vastness of what is still “out there”. I could be persuaded.

Here are a couple of interviews with the bloke on the subject of “Sum: Tales from the Afterlives”. In the first he discusses the book and its ideas with Philip Adams and Brian Eno on the event of the latter’s Luminous events in Sydney (26 mins):

David Eagleman discusses Sum with Philip Adams - 26 mins

The second is from a talk he gave for the Authors On Tour Live podcast at the venerable Tattered Cover book store in Denver Colorado in which:

David Eagleman reads from many of stories in the book and takes a couple of questions from the floor - 42 mins
If you’d rather read someone else’s opinion, here is the New York Times book review of Sum: 40 Tales of the Afterlives by David Eagleman.



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