Thursday, September 02, 2010

Writing Wednesday - "Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives" Review


While I don't normally read fiction, I was genuinely excited to check out this book after hearing author David Eagleman speak at TEDxHouston in June of this year.

The book is a collection of 40 short stories, each about 2 - 4 pages long, where a different theory of what the afterlife might be like is described.  In one possibility, we enter an eternity where we relive our entire Earthly lives over again, except all similar events are grouped together.  You might spend 5 straight months sitting in a doctor's waiting room, before you spend the next 37 hours looking for lost keys.  In another story, we find out that humans were actually created as machines by less intelligent beings to find out the meaning of their lives, similar to how we created computers to solve our own complex problems.

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Eagleman as part of the TEDxHouston Book Club.  During this meeting, the members of the group were able to ask him a variety of questions about the inspiration behind the stories.  This led to some interesting takeaways that you might not glean from reading the book alone.  First, the title "Sum" is primarily a reference to the Latin word, which means "to be", although it has a dual-meaning in the context of being the "sum of the parts" of our Earthly lives.  Dr. Eagleman originally had approximately 75 stories to include in the book, but he decided to narrow it down to the highest-impact of the stories, which was in the range of 40.  Once he realized that 40 was such an important number in various religions, he was compelled to include precisely that number of stories in the final version.

I ended up reading the entire 110 page book in a single sitting over Independence Day weekend.  The stories are intentionally sequenced in a diverse order, so I found myself excited by the premise in one story, and then saddened by the fate proposed in the next.  While the book deals with the topic of an afterlife, which is at its core a religious concept, the stories are presented in a non-dogmatic way.  This makes the theories behind the stories approachable, so I didn't find myself turned off by preachiness inherent in other religious writings, be they fiction or non-fiction.

From both an entertainment and spiritual refreshment perspective, this book truly strikes a chord in modern life.

You can purchase a copy of the book via the link below:

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives

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