Book Review: Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives

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As many people have told me, if you liked Einstein’s Dreams, this is the book for you. I thought for a while this was actually by Alan Lightman, but the author is David Eagleman, who is a neuroscientist. A neuroscientist with an interesting perspective on death.

The title of the book is pretty much self-explanatory; there are 40 different versions of what the afterlife might be like. Like Einstein’s Dreams, I find each of the stories is kind of like a koan, a little cognitive, spiritual, philosophical puzzle to mull over and meditate on. It’s a very quick read, and like Einstein’s Dreams, almost too quick. I know as I’m reading that I should slow myself down to think about each of the stories, but reading them becomes kind of like eating a bag of potato chips, in that once you start, you might as well go through the whole bag, what the hell? Here are my particular favorite afterlives, to give you a kind of flavor for what the book’s like..

Search. In this afterlife, when you die the only thing that changes is that “you lose the momentum of the biochemical cycles that keep the machinery running. In the moment before death, you are still composed of the same thousand trillion trillion atoms as in the moment after death–the only difference is that their neighborly network of social interactions has ground to a halt.” Basically, all the atoms that make up you are still you, they just have a parting of the ways. They drift apart and begin to become parts of all kinds of different things–“the leaf of a staghorn fern, a speckled snail shell, a kernel of maize, a beetle’s mandible, a waxen bloodroot, a ptarmigan’s tail feather.” But your atoms are still you…having been a part of your body, they continue to be you, so that your gestures, your being becomes a part of all the things of which your atoms are now a part. So, “Instead of your gestures being the raising of an eyebrow or a blown kiss, now a gesture might consist of a rising gnat, a waving wheat stalk, and the inhaling lung of a breathing beluga whale.” Eagleman goes on to say that though this seems disturbing, it is, in fact, wonderful, but it already seems wonderful to me. Maybe it’s cliche to say, you basically become a part of everything. I like this afterlife because, at least for me, it has a strong ring of truth. I do believe this is part of the magic that happens to us after we die, only Eagleman kind of skips the decomposition and the worms part (which I don’t really mind so much, thinking about being in the belly of a worm).

The part Eagleman adds is that your atoms, still retaining the kind of residual sense of having once been you, eventually miss each other and decide to pull together again, “converging for their densest reunion in the form of a human.” Eagleman says, “They come together to search for something they once knew but didn’t appreciate at the time.” It’s nice for a while, but then they miss the experience of being in flux and in many different things, and eventually they dissolve again. That is a beautiful, beautiful view of death and life, and no real Creator need be involved at all.

The Unnatural. Many of Eagleman’s afterlives are a little more tongue-in-cheek, mocking in tone. We get a lot of different pictures of God, gods, the Creator, aliens, Technicians…all kinds of manner of folks who show up when you die. In this story, they’re Technicians, and when you die, they inform you that you can make any single change you want to in your life and then live it over again. For example, “you might choose to make yourself two inches taller, or give everyone on Earth a better sense of humor, or make birds talk.” This is not what the “you” in Eagleman’s version chooses. “You” choose to be the one who eradicates death altogether. Of course, this doesn’t end well, and the Technicians inform you that you’ve tried this before.

You can read for yourself why this doesn’t go well, but I was intrigued by this idea, that you could change one thing and live your life again. The suggestions are all fairly abstract except for the two inches taller. But would you actually change anything? I’m a firm believer in the idea that if you change anything about your life, you probably change everything. If I did make myself two inches taller, I would not end up as the same person and therefore I would not end up with the same life. And psychologists might call this rationalization, but I quite like the life I have. Rationalization means that we tend to adjust to what we have…when we make a decision we tend to convince ourselves that it is the right decision. And I say, thank god. This is a very useful skill indeed to have as humans. But if I changed anything about my life, I might not have ended up in Madison, with my job, my house, my family, my friends, my husband, my stepdaughter and my cats. How could I give up any of those things? So though there might be a few things in life I regret, in the end my regrets and “mistakes” have made me who I am, so I wouldn’t change any of them. An interesting thing to think about, though, which is what makes Eagleman’s stories so fun. Would you change anything, and if so, what?

Upcoming review (from the abstract and metaphysical to the concerete and doughy): The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart.

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