Published: Jan 9, 2013
It took David Eagleman seven years to write the 40 mini-stories in “Sum.”
And not because he has an Important Day Job, though he does --- he’s a neuroscientist who directs the Laboratory for Perception and Action and the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law at Baylor College of Medicine. In that role, he’s also a writer. He publishes often. His topics: time perception, synesthesia, and neurolaw.
This 100-page book --- a bestseller that’s been published in 27 languages --- took so long because Eagleman needed just the right mix. He wrote 75 stories to get the final 40.
Why so hard?
They’re all about the same subject: the afterlife.
Or, more correctly, the afterlives, because these stories are imaginings of what happens to us after we die. The possibilities are, as they say, endless.
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.
That can be sadder than you think. A war hero is exposed after his death. Then his reputation is restored and he’s canonized. Statues are built. People talk. ”And that is the curse of this room: since we live in the heads of those who remember us, we lose control of our lives and become who they want us to be.”
In another of these no-more-than-three-page stories, the afterlife has "San Diego weather." In another God's favorite book is "Frankenstein." In another, “only the people you remember are here.” Or “death is someone else’s dream.” Or God is a bickering married couple. Or we are God’s eyes and fingers. Or God is the size of a bacterium; we’re giants to that God.
You take all your pain at once, all twenty-seven intense hours of it. Bones break, cars crash, skin is cut, babies are born. Once you make it through, it's agony-free for the rest of your afterlife.
Who should not read this book? People with such solid faith that they have certainty about an afterlife --- and want to keep it that way. Who should read it? People with doubts. Questions. Agonies. Or just a willingness to conduct a series of thought experiments. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
What’s the point of these stories?
Maybe that God lives through us. So why not feel more acutely the thrill of this God-given --- or God-created --- moment? The past is gone, the future unknowable. Be here now.
Or is that too serious?
“These are not serious proposals,” Eagleman has said. ”They're satirical and thought provoking lenses through which to see our lives at new angles. The only serious proposal is the emergent message of the book: that there are many possibilities, and we should be discussing the size of that space instead of battling over the details of the pitifully few stories that our ancestors entertained.”
Yes, but at the end of the day, what does Eagleman believe?
“I believe in possibility.”
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 a toilet. You take all your pain at once, all twenty-seven intense hours of it. Bones break, cars crash, skin is cut, babies are born. Once you make it through, it's agony-free for the rest of your afterlife. But that doesn't mean it's always pleasant. You spend six days clipping your nails. Fifteen months looking for lost items. Eighteen months waiting in line. Two years of boredom: staring out a bus window, sitting in an airport terminal. One year reading books. Your eyes hurt, and you itch, because you can't take a shower until it's your time to take your marathon two-hundred-day shower. Two weeks wondering what happens when you die. One minute realizing your body is falling. Seventy-seven hours of confusion. One hour realizing you've forgotten someone's name. Three weeks realizing you are wrong. Two days lying. Six weeks waiting for a green light. Seven hours vomiting. Fourteen minutes experiencing pure joy. Three months doing laundry. Fifteen hours writing your signature. Two days tying shoelaces. Sixty-seven days of heartbreak. Five weeks driving lost. Three days calculating restaurant tips. Fifty-one days deciding what to wear. Nine days pretending you know what is being talked about. Two weeks counting money. Eighteen days staring into the refrigerator. Thirty-four days longing. Six months watching commercials. Four weeks sitting in thought, wondering if there is something better you could be doing with your time. Three years swallowing food. Five days working buttons and zippers. Four minutes wondering what your life would be like if you reshuffled the order of events. In this part of the afterlife, you imagine something analogous to your Earthly life, and the thought is blissful: a life where episodes are split into tiny swallowable pieces, where moments do not endure, where one experiences the joy of jumping from one event to the next like a child hopping from spot to spot on the burning sand.