Choose(after)life Brian Eno composed a score for it. Stephen Fry sent sales rocketing when he mentioned it on Twitter and Nick Cave, Jarvis Cocker and Miranda Richardson have been recorded reading from it. Kirstin Innes meets David Eagleman, author of Sum, one of 2009’s most celebrated books
I n the afterlife, you’re allowed to be whoever you want to be. So you decide to be a neuroscientist, who spends his days thinking big, big thoughts about the endless mysteries and possibilities of life. You have an idea for a book composed of 40 very short stories, each positing a different idea about what happens after you die. In one afterlife, people sit in a waiting room equipped with vending machines until the last person who remembers them on Earth speaks their name for the last time. In another, you’re confronted by all the other possible versions of yourself, everyone you could have been. It’s a very simple concept, but people like it.
Six months after your book’s publication, you’re performing sections of it live on stage at the Sydney Opera House, while Brian Eno
20 THE LIST 5–19 Nov 2009
conducts an orchestra in the score he composed, inspired by your book. Nine months after publication, a famous British man tweets a message about it to all of his followers and your sales go up 6000%. A movement, possibilianism, is inspired by your book. It is translated into 16 different languages and all over the world people are touched and changed by your little book of little stories.
In the afterlife, given the choice, I want to be David Eagleman; particularly as, despite his intimidating resume, in conversation the author of Sum: Tales from the Afterlives fizzes with the enthusiasm of a particularly imaginative teenage boy. ‘I spent my adult life as a scientist, and science is, essentially, the most successful
approach we have to try and understand the vast mysteries around us,’ he says, straight off, when I ask him to explain the genesis of Sum. ‘And yet, when you get to the end of the pier of science, you realise that what we don’t know vastly outstrips what we do know. There are always wonderful mysteries to confront. What has always surprised me when I walk into a bookstore is the number of books that you can find that are written with certainty. The authors tell some story as though it’s true, but they don’t have any evidence that it is true!’ It’s important to note here that Eagleman understands everything as a story – that he sees the narratives propounded by religions and by the ‘new atheists’ (Richard Dawkins et al) as equally narrow-minded and frustrating.
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