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Book Review: Sum: forty tales from the afterlives by David Eagleman

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“Of course you don't die. Nobody dies. Death doesn't exist. You only reach a new level of vision, a new realm of consciousness, a new unknown world.” – Henry Miller

Do you believe in the afterlife? Or do you believe that when we die we simply rot away, and that’s the end? What about God? Do you believe in a loving God, an angry God, or no God at all? Sum: forty tales from the afterlives is an imaginative work that proposes 40 different scenarios of what happens after we draw that last breath.

The tales in Sum are short; most are only two or three pages, and they are beautifully told. Even when he presents us with no God or no afterlife, David Eagleman offers an inventive array of things that could be, but probably aren’t, our after-death fates. The first, and titular, tale offers a view of the afterlife that is both boring and captivating; it not only makes us imagine the hereafter but also to think about what we are doing with our lifetime. It is the perfect introduction to a book of stories that may be indescribable for some.

Perhaps imaging God as so many characters could be labeled blasphemous. People that closed-minded won’t be picking this book up unless they are planning a book burning. The many Gods we are offered include a happy God, a bored God, a married couple God, a microbial God, and a God whose favorite book is Frankenstein (think about it; it makes sense), as well as no God at all. Since I believe that we really have no clue as to what God is or looks like, all these possibilities are intriguing.

Imagine awakening in the next world only to find that you are in suburbia. As pleasant and satisfying as it is, it lacks something — truly good people. This is the heaven that sinners attain. God has let those who have led exemplary lives rest in peace, rotting and becoming one with the earth. Those He dislikes He punishes with everlasting, ever-boring life, for “we were created not only in His image but His social situation as well.” And He’s found that situation to be pretty damn boring.

Throughout Sum there are classic visions of Heaven with fluffy clouds and harps, but there are also dystopian images of an afterlife that one might not pray to enter. Eagleman warns us that dying doesn’t necessarily mean you will see celestial shores or lush gardens, even if the theists are right about God.

The author also serves up variations such as finally finding the meaning of life, never finding the meaning of life, becoming a character in living people’s dreams, and reincarnation as a choice of beings. There are sad tales, such as “Egalitaire,” which ends with a God who is depressed because She wanted Heaven to be perfect for everyone so She gave everyone true equality, which they interpret as being in hell.

There are also laugh-out-loud stories like “The Unnatural,” which puts us back among the living with one wish that will come true; unfortunately, we choose to eliminate death, never imagining the repercussions.

Eagleman employs a whimsical, even poetic, style to convey these scenarios, and the result is a dreamlike collection of how one man envisions existence after death. What adds to the enjoyment is his inclusion of science, physics, and technology in the details. Whether we are just a series of ones and zeroes or are doomed to watch television for all eternity is unimportant; what is important is that we don’t know what happens after death.

Eagleman gives 40 possibilities, each of them as improbable as our own preconceived notions. Where did you learn of the afterlife or its nonexistence? Was it tribal lore, family tradition, religious training, or fairy tales? Sum presents a new option, imagine-it-yourself. Build your own which will be just as valid as any other. Believe in it, believe in someone else’s, or don’t believe at all.

Sum is best read leisurely. Each tale is an entity unto itself but, because they are so good, there is a temptation to read the next and the next and the next. Don’t do it. Take a few moments, relax, and reflect. This is not a book to rush through, there is no greater reward at the end than at the beginning.

Bottom Line: Would I buy Sum? Yes. Not only would I buy it, I would keep it. Although I have a reverence for books, I don’t keep them after reading, I pass them on for others to enjoy. Limited storage space encourages this practice. However, some books deserve one of the precious few spots available because I will want to revisit them. Sum is one of those books.

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