David Eagleman’s Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives was published in February 2009. I read it in January 2017. (I called it “good pre-dream reading.”) Now I’m writing about it in February 2021. These dates suggest to me that it is a great wintering book, a collection of possibilities (that word will have more relevance later) in a season in which the possibilities feel quite grim: Death, frozen pipes, snow that is white and terrifying like a blank sheet of paper.
There are two afterlives in this book that I think about often.
The first is from the title story, “Sum,” in which you “relive all your experiences, but this time, with the events re-shuffled into a new order,” and “all the moments which share a quality are grouped together.” So you sleep for 30 years, sit on the toilet for 5 years, have sex for 7 months, experience pain for 27 hours, etc. That story is a reminder that “a life where episodes are split into tiny swallowable pieces” is a well-designed and endurable one.
The second is the afterlife in “Metamorphosis,” a limbo-esque lobby the dead wait in until every single person on Earth has ceased to remember them. It starts this way: “There are three deaths: the first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.”
I think of these three deaths whenever a loved one dies. Their first and second death has passed, but their third and final death has not, and the absolute earliest it will is at the moment my brain forgets their name. So, until my own first death, I keep them alive. This is easiest for my favorite musicians: Put on their record, and their voice fills the room.
One question that it didn’t even occur to me to ask when I first read the book: What are Eagleman’s actual religious beliefs? From the 2011 New Yorker profile of Eagleman called “The Possibilian”:
Eagleman was brought up as a secular Jew and became an atheist in his teens. Lately, though, he’d taken to calling himself a Possibilian—a denomination of his own invention. Science had taught him to be skeptical of cosmic certainties, he told me. From the unfathomed complexity of brain tissue—“essentially an alien computational material”—to the mystery of dark matter, we know too little about our own minds and the universe around us to insist on strict atheism, he said. “And we know far too much to commit to a particular religious story.” Why not revel in the alternatives? […] “Part of the scientific temperament is this tolerance for holding multiple hypotheses in mind at the same time,” he said. “As Voltaire said, uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.”
“I’m not saying here is the answer,” he says. “I’m just celebrating the vastness of our ignorance.” (For more, look to his piece, “Why I am a Possibilian.”)
It’s really of no matter. Sum is like the movie Groundhog Day: it gets at something universal that will be claimed by humans of all walks.
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[PS. The New Yorker profile, which I only read this afternoon, features Eagleman hanging out with one of my heroes, Brian Eno, and hooking drummers up to an EEG monitor while they played. “The question is: do drummers have different brains from the rest of us?” Eno says. “Everyone who has ever worked in a band is sure that they do.” (Eno, an early reader and enthusiast of Sum, wrote some soundscapes to go along with readings, and the composer Max Richter actually turned it into an opera.)]
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Every Saturday I put one of my favorite books on the Bookshelf. To see more of my favorite books, check out my reading years.