Book Review: Sum by David Eagleman

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.


This was my favorite paragraph from Sum by David Eagleman, because I think the third death captures the key motivation behind so many “immortality projects” (I mean change-the-world projects) — people try to extend the time horizon by which people still utter their name on planet Earth. Your kids will, their kids will, but for how many generations beyond that will your name be spoken?

The book is a slim volume of short stories / riffs on what happens in the afterlife. With great imagination, Eagleman hypothesizes different situations, settings, interfaces. For example, perhaps in the afterlife you relive all your experiences — not chronologically, but rather grouped by the type of the experience. You spend two conesecutive months driving in front of your house; seven consecutive months having sex; four months taking out the trash; eight weeks experiencing intense pain, i.e. all the pain you experienced in your whole life condensed into eight straight weeks.  There’s nothing religious about the book. There are, though, embedded within, quite a few lessons and perspectives on how we lead our lives while still breathing.

Sum is some of the most inventive short fiction I’ve read in a long while. Recommended.

6 comments on “Book Review: Sum by David Eagleman
  • I don’t typically point out typos, but this is an important one: “immortality”, not “immorality”. Feel free to delete this comment.

  • “Einstein’s Dreams” is similarly great. Instead of alternative versions of the afterlife it asks “what if time behaved this way? What if this law of physics was different?”
    I enjoyed Sum more, but Dreams offers similar types of perspectives.

  • I bought this book a few years ago and enjoyed it thoroughly too. Your post made me take it off the shelf again and browse through it a bit this morning. A lovely little book that I recall reading through in one sitting, almost, over a lazy weekend.

    And, I recall now what got me the most in the book – not so much the imagining of how our afterlife might be (haven’t we all had those thoughts at some point or another?) but that he also re-imagines our views/myths/stories about God(s). That’s a place I’d never gone to in my own imagination – the idea of God being a certain sort of benevolent, fair-but-firm patriarch was so firmly programmed into me from very early years. So it felt like Eagleman was suddenly opening up a whole new thing for me with his different God versions and behaviors.

    Thanks for the post – it made me go pick up this lovely book again.

  • You would be very interested to know, Ben, how high-level Tibetan meditation practitioners (like the Dalai Lama, Karmapa, et al) visualize death in its various stages, and in fact “walk through” an eight-stage process daily in meditation practice. Unfortunately, the particular Robert Thurman book and essay I’d recommend seems to be retitled or repackaged on Amazon USA.

    I need to dig through boxes at my “undisclosed location.” I’m not an advanced Tantric practitioner but the processes fascinate me.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *