When I was a child, I read constantly. My mother had to shoo me out of the house to play, because otherwise I would have done nothing but read. I grew up in house full of books, and I pestered my parents to check out books from the adult section of the public library, because the kids’ library wasn’t going to cut it.
I’ve found that over the last decade or so I read less and less. No, I read as much as I used to, I think: but at least ninety per cent of it is online, and most of the rest is magazines (and ever fewer of those, too). I don’t know whether to blame ordinary aging or the Internet for my shortened attention span, but I hardly seem to be able to read a novel any more. The last one I read was The Handmaid’s Tale, which I had read in the eighties when it was first published so that hardly counts, and the last ones before that were Gillian Flynn’s three — I had read Gone Girl in one huge rush and then read the other two in reverse chronological order, with diminishing returns (which only means she’s gotten better and better.) But mostly I find I’m reading smaller and smaller chunks: short stories instead of novels, and then fragments instead of short stories.
Sum: Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman is a book of fragments, tiny lapidary chunks, a few pages each, meant to throw light on how we live our lives, how we view religion and eternity, and what it means to be human. In each story, Eagleman takes a single, simple idea, often one that’s an established tenet of a religion, and relentlessly pursues it to its logical conclusion.
Some of the stories are funny: In “Missing”, God is an old married couple, while in “Quantum”, the afterlife is a quantum state infinitely confusing until a considerate angel narrows it down to one situation you can handle. Some are savage: “Circle of Friends” begins with the notion that your afterlife is populated only by people you knew, and relentlessly hammers away at our self-centredness, while “Will-o’-the-Wisp” takes our cultural infatuation with reality television as far as it can go.
The best of the stories are devastating: “Metamorphosis” is an exploration of the ancient Egyptian idea that your name is inextricably bound to you, a part of your soul, and that for better or worse you only exist as long as your name is remembered by someone, anyone. “Descent of Species” wonders what would happen if you were reincarnated as another creature, but you got to choose which creature.
“Mirrors” is the one story out of the entire collection that haunts me the most. “When you think you’ve died, you haven’t actually died. Death is a two-stage process,” it begins. And then —this is a spoiler, I’m going to quote the end of the story, you should stop reading now if that’s going to bother you — Eagleman swiftly, surgically gets to the point: your entire life is a construct, because it is impossible to see yourself clearly, so you invent and perpetually renew a persona based on how you believe other people see you; but upon death, all of your illusions are stripped away and you are confronted with the pooled perceptions of everyone who ever met you. “Without benefit of filtration, you see yourself clearly for the first time. And that is what finally kills you.”
It would kill me.