Sum is a book that you could easily tear through in an hour or two, depending on how quickly you read and whether you take time to process what you’ve read, but I would recommend taking a little bit of time with it. I read it over the course of a few days so I could take a little time to absorb and reflect on each vignette, or at least the ones that I found most interesting or thought-provoking.
Sum manages to contain a lot in the span of only 110 pages. David Eagleman wrote 40 vignettes (well, 38, but I’ll get to that) about various possible afterlives. Most are only 2 – 3 pages long, giving you just a snippet and leaving questions, even as they sometimes seem to answer a number of other questions. In some there is a god or creator(s) of some kind; in others there isn’t, or at least there’s no mention of one. Where a god or gods are mentioned, they are definitely flawed. There are a few where it turns out we are basically data collectors for our creators (Douglas Adams, anyone?). Some afterlives seem fairly unpleasant, some neutral, and few seem like they would actually be pleasant or be consistent with anyone’s view of what Heaven is (this is not, by the way, a religious book, but more a series of thought exercises). In some the focus is more about our creation and purpose and the mention of an afterlife seems mostly tangential, and there are two that seem to completely focus on our existence and neglect to mention an afterlife (hence the 38).
Often I was left wanting more, which is to be expected given that we’re only given snippets of information about these afterlives. For example, in the first vignette, titled “Sum,” we learn that in one version of the afterlife we relive our life in chunks of time based on a shared quality: “You spend 6 days clipping your nails. Fifteen months looking for lost items. Eighteen months waiting in line . . . Two weeks wondering what happens when you die,” etc. There’s a part about reliving all of your pain at once (for 27 intense hours), but then you are “agony-free for the rest of your afterlife.” Only what happens after you have relived all of these hours? Do you repeat them all over again? And if so, what does that mean about pain, since supposedly after you live it once, you’re agony-free for the rest?
Other times the vignettes made me think, at least briefly, about how I’m living my life. In one, titled “Circle of Friends,” you find that your afterlife largely resembles your regular day-to-day life, except that it is only populated by people you know. Eventually “The missing crowds make you lonely. You begin to complain about all the people you could be meeting. But no one listens or sympathizes with you, because this is precisely what you chose when you were alive.”
This was a quick, entertaining read that I would definitely recommend.