Book review: ‘Sum: Tales from the Afterlives’ by David Eagleman (in the style of David Eagleman’s ‘Sum’)

When you die, you spend your time re-reading through all the books you read when you were alive and think more carefully about them. You explore all the possibilities they offer, follow all the narrative threads, contemplate the characters, plot themes and writing style. In short, you’re given as long as it takes to read and digest only the books you’ve already read. This might be a shorter afterlife for some than others. Reading books at all, let alone contemplating them, might have been a problem when you were alive because – well, we’ve all been busy. We sometimes skip pages, even chapters. But when you’re dead you have more time. As much time as you need, in fact.

You re-read and re-interpret the books in death in the sequence that you read and interpreted them in life. This has the advantage of gently easing you into your long-term past-time because the books we read as children are quite easy to grasp. You may have forgotten that you’ve read ‘Spot is Missing’ or a ‘Dr Seuss’ story, but there it is. Take your time.

Aeons, books pass. You have to squeeze all the meaning and effect out of them. It is tiring. Sometimes it is a blessing, sometimes a curse. Millions of years pass before you start on your first ‘Famous Five’ story and work begins on those teenage novels.

By the time you reach David Eagleman’s ‘Sum: Tales from the Afterlives‘, you’re an old hand at reading and thinking about books. You’ve done it before. You’ve read some heavyweights in your time, too: Shakespeare, ‘Moby Dick’, a handful of Russian novels. You think there is little that can surprise you. Given the time you’ve spent reading and thinking, you can be forgiven for being a little jaded. So you’re relieved to find ‘Sum’ quite short and in big type, too. This won’t take long, relatively speaking.

But you find that when you’re reading the forty different stories about what happens when we die that you’re more impressed than you thought you might be. This really is something, you think. These short stories – imaginings, really, thought pieces that speculate with great originality on worlds that lie beyond death – are quite unlike anything you’ve ever read.

Take, for example, the story called ‘Circle of Friends’ that describes an afterlife in which the only people who exist for you in your afterlife are those you remember from your life. At first it seems great, because all those people you were meaningfully connected with while you were alive – your lovers, family and close friends, your schoolmates and teachers – they are all there, just as they ever were. But after a while you realise that there are so many other people you are destined never to meet, because you don’t remember them from life. You complain about it but no one listens or sympathises because ‘this is precisely what you chose when you were alive’.

When you’re reading ‘Sum’, you start to think – just how do these stories make me feel? Mostly, they make you feel that you should have done more when you were alive. ‘Circle of Friends’ makes you feel like you should have gotten to know more people, those people that were on the outskirts of your life, or even those you saw every day or lived near or shared a workplace with.

In other stories, you read about god, or gods – sometimes they are frail and ‘human’, at other times unrecognisable from the tales you learnt when you were alive. Another story outlines how, in the afterlife, you can choose to be any animal you like when you live again. Someone chooses a horse- for the simplicity, the grace, the uncomplicated sense of ‘being’ one imagines – but immediately regrets doing so, as they feel the inevitable and irreversible emotional and intellectual decline that having a horse’s mind and intellect brings for someone human.

Your head begins to spin as you wonder if you’ll ever have enough time to think about all the ideas this book touches upon. At the same time, you’ve got an idea that these forty very short tales tell more or less the same message. And you find yourself wanting to go back to being alive so you can share that message: that your life means ‘precisely what you choose when you were alive’. It is how you will be remembered, how you will remember. You wish you had read more books, listened more, thought more carefully about the stories that open at each instance of your life – all so the sum of your (after)life would be the greater.

In the afterlife, at the end of reading each book you are asked if you would recommend it to others, knowing they might have to read and think about it for centuries. For ‘Sum: Tales of the Afterlives’ the short answer is a definite ‘yes’. The long answer will take a lot longer to explain.