To my delight, pleasure and great, good fortune, for the past couple of weeks I have been reading a dazzling little book published nearly 10 years ago.
It has also brought forth the largest sense of envy I've felt in a long time. The author's imagination is so vast, so intelligent, so funny, so thoughtful that I might as well close up shop at this blog right now.
But first, let me tell about this book I somehow missed in 2009. After all, it made a dozen or more best-books-of-the-year lists, has been translated into about 28 languages, was performed as a musical offering in both Sydney and London and has been praised far and wide.
Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlives, is written by neuroscientist, David Eagleman, who was also the host of the PBS series, The Brain, a couple of years ago. From this one book alone, you know he is one of those few people in the world who has not been bored for a moment of his life because all he needs to do to engage himself is sit around and think.
Sum is 40 short stories – or better, thought experiments - 40 different ideas of what the afterlife might be like. (And I do mean short – they average about two-and-a-half pages each.)
They are serious and silly and frightening and exciting and whimsical and important. Some are thrilling (oh, please let this be a real afterlife). Others are terrifying. All are fascinating and will leave you with a lot to think about.
The title story that opens the book tells us that
”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 the toilet.”
In another afterlife, “Descent of Species,” you get to choose whatever you want to be in your next life but realize too late that in having chosen to be a horse, for example, you have lost your human faculties and can never again be a human.
Other stories posit that god is a married couple or a microbe too small to know humans exist and in one instance, there are many gods each of whom has control of one domain:
”One god has control over objects that are made of chrome. Another over flags. Another over bacteria. The god of telephones, the god of bubble gum, the god of spoons: these are the players in an incalculably large panoply of deific bureaucracy.”
In the story, “Seed”, god had unintentionally set life in motion by devising a palette of matter from which creation took off after having “simmered the Earth at the proper distance from the sun.” However,
”Recently [god] has run into an unforeseen problem: our species is growing smarter. While we were once easy to awe, dragging knuckles and gaping at fire, we have replaced confusion with equations...All this is reflected in the steady decline of attempted miracles in the past millennia.”
Yet another hereafter
”...is full of dogs, mosquitoes, kangaroos, and every other creature. After you arrive and look around for awhile, it becomes obvious that anything that once existed enjoys a continued existence...
“Contrary to the admonition that we cannot take it with us, anything we create becomes part of our afterlife. If it was created, it survives.
“Surprisingly, this rule applies to creations not only material but also mental. So along with the creations that join us in the afterlife are the gods we created. Lonely in a coffee shop you might meet Resheph, the Semitic god of plague and war...”
Along with 2000 or more other old gods no one worships anymore.
Eagleman, who calls himself a possibilian, has said that these stories are meant to explore new ideas beyond the traditional and so Sum is.
If you are inclined to read this delightful and, I think, important book, take your time with the stories, just two or three at a day over a couple of weeks. They are each one filled with wonderment, insight and possibilty, and each deserves some time to percolate within you.
In the end, you will find that these stories have much more to do with how to live now than the afterlife. Surely you recall from school that the title, Sum, means “I am” in Latin.
PS: No, I am not closing up shop on this blog – that was a bit of hyperbole to make the point of my admiration.