Independence Day 2018

Tales From the Afterlives

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.

Sumcover150 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.


Sounds like a great read. Thanks and now I'm going to Amazon to put it on my Wish List. Happy Forth of July!

David Eagleman must have a wonderful imagination. Sounds like he is a very clever and intelligent writer. I am sure he would be one of my favorite authors so I will see if the book is available for a Kindle. My library may have it so I will try there first.

I think the mystery of a possible afterlife is what keeps people from the fear of death. But please don't make me come back as a mosquito or a horse.

Oooh I can't wait to read this!

Thanks, I just put a hold on it at my local library. I liked the way the afterlife was presented in The Lovely Bones, too.

Ah, great relief you don't stop blogging! I would miss you a lot, although English is a foreign language for me. Your analyzes, wit, good humor,nagging once in a while bring a lot of insight and joy to my life. Greetings from Switzerland!

There are, however, several old testament references to an afterlife. (cf. Numbers 30, 33). It is described as a region “dark and deep,” “the Pit,” and “the Land of Forgetfulness,” where human beings descend after death. The suggestion is that in the netherworld of Sheol, the deceased, although cut off from God and humankind, live on in some shadowy state of existence.
Now that's something to look forward to.

Argh! My library has nothing by David Eagleman. Ah well. I think your synopsis opens up a whole new way of thinking.

Comment off topic: Thank you to those who use our great public libraries for books. I cringe to read that people go straight to Amazon for books when each and every local bookstore struggles to keep its doors open. Please support independent booksellers.

Thoughtful and humorous. But if you don't believe in an afterlife ... ?

Sounds like cool read . . . Just put it on Hold at the Vancouver library. Thanks!

I read this book, sometime during the 20 months in 2011-12 when I was providing round-the-clock care of my mother-in-law at the end of her life. So many books and blogs (including TGB which I discovered at that time) got me through those months, particularly the final six. During that time I discovered several non-fiction writers, including David Eagleman, Kathleen Dean Moore and Annie Dillard whose writing helped me immensely. In my copy of SUM, (a paper Vintage Books edition from 2010) at the very back, there is an ad for his book Incognito, and then a list of six other books by other authors, all relating to consciousness, aging and/or death which I then also read. Each was very well-written, and I would recommend them all for anyone interested in these topics.

Well to be honest I'll have to second Susan comment. Probably a lack of creative imagination on my part...:)

There was a wonderful Japanese film about the afterlife where you got to pick the one moment from your life to spend in eternity. It was called "After Life". It came out in 1998. Highly recommend it.

Just an addendum to my earlier post. You really don't need to believe in an afterlife to enjoy this book, In fact, it's probably better if you don't have a preconceived idea about such a thing when reading Eagleman.

Add my thanks for referring this book. I look forward to adding it to my collection of Positive End/Beginning books and quotes. To be frank it helps with end of life anxiety to pursue the subject and keep the happy energy flowing. Be Well All.

Although I'm also a 99.9% non-believer in an afterlife (dust to dust and all that), I may read this book if I can find it at Goodwill or the library.

Energy can neither be created or destroyed..............was that Einstein? Do I want another life? An after life, sort of like an after party party??? I will probably read this, I'm interested in the different takes on what, if anything follows our death. I'm a big believer in Mystery, whatever that is, ha ha.

I hope and assume this book is high irony. Nothing intrigues me less than an afterlife. Every fictional possibility ever presented, especially the standard harps and pearly gates stuff of the church, just sends shivers of dread down my spine. In fact, any afterlife concept that posits going on and on without end, whether in a good way or a bad way, triggers an attack of the most horrible claustrophobia. I don't get why people want or need an afterlife. The earth has somehow managed to accommodate billions and billions of humans and animals of every variety over billions and billions of years. Every creature must die and return to dust to make room for new creatures. Providing space for future creatures should be the only reward anyone needs. Rest, as they say, in peace.

I don’t expend much time thinking about the unknowable — what is, is — I’ll find out when the time comes, or I won’t. I think my body’s life energy ceases to be generated when my heart stops beating, much as a flame dissapates when extinguished. What becomes of the body is quite immaterial, but basically dust to dust.

Sounds like these stories could be entertaining reads about possibilities limited only by our imagination. For a period when I did consider the possibility of an afterlife, I imagined one in which we could only be observers from a different dimension — destined to experience perpetual replays of every interaction we had with others, and then seeing the consequences which we might never have known in our real lives.

There’s also the Japanese film “Departures” that was lovely. Highly recommend,

Well, Emma Jay beat me to it, so I'll ditto her comments, which I was struggling to put into words, and she said it better than I would have anyway.

Another movie along some of these lines - "Wings of Desire"

Just ordered this book - hit a particular note for me, as I have written an "Afterlife" book for a family member who is living through an illness that does not have a cure...thoughts about what would most comfort that person provided the shared memories that built the landscape of the work...did me a lot of good, as well. Thanks so much for introduction to Sum...

This is the sentence that sold me on the book: “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.”
Thanks; just ordered it!

I wanted to come back as a eucalyptus tree. Now here they are all dying from a beetle infestation, and I am aware I made the wrong choice.

I want to come back as a cat who is as beloved as my Patti. She enjoys soft places to sleep, good food, daily special treats, sunshine, medical care, grooming and many massages. Of course, this is my fancy, but if I had a say in what happens, I'd come back to live the life my fluffy girl lives.

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