Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives

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Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives
Sum book by David Eagleman.jpg
Cover of the book SUM by David Eagleman
AuthorDavid Eagleman
CountryUnited States
PublisherPantheon Books
Publication date
10 Feb 2009
Media typePrint Hardback, Paperback, Audio, e-book
Pages107[1] (Hardback, 2009)
ISBN978-0-307-37734-0 (Hardcover, 2009)
813/.6 22 [1]
LC ClassPS3605.A375 S86 2009 [1]

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, also simply called Sum, is a work of speculative fiction by the neuroscientist David Eagleman. It is in press in 28 languages as of 2016. The Los Angeles Times described it as "teeming, writhing with imagination."[2] Barnes and Noble named it one of the Best Books of 2009.[3]


As a short story cycle, the book presents forty mutually exclusive stories staged in a wide variety of possible afterlives. The author has stated that none of the stories is meant to be taken as serious theological proposals but, instead, that the message of the book is the importance of exploring new ideas beyond the ones that have been traditionally passed down.[4]

The title word "Sum" refers to the Latin for "I am," as in Cogito ergo sum.

Like Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, Sum does not fit entirely into the traditional category of a novel. Sum has been called "philosofiction",[5] an "experimental novel",[6] and "a collection of thought experiments".[7] Most of the stories are understood to "posit the afterlife as mirroring life on Earth"[8][9]

The New York Times Book Review called Sum a "delightful, thought-provoking little collection [which] belongs to that category of strange, unclassifiable books that will haunt the reader long after the last page has been turned".[10] Sum was chosen by Time Magazine for their 2009 Summer Reading list, with the acclaim "Eagleman is a true original. Read Sum and be amazed. Reread Sum and be reamazed.".[11] Sum was selected as Book of the Week by both The Guardian[12] and The Week,[13] and was the featured subject on the cover of two magazines in 2009, The Big Issue and Humanitie. On September 10, 2009, Sum was ranked by Amazon as the #2 bestselling book in the United Kingdom.[14]

The book received accolades from non-religious reviewers as well as from the religious community. The recommendations of Stephen Fry, Philip Pullman, Brian Greene, Brian Eno, and others appear on the cover. In 2018, Tim Ferriss wrote in his newsletter, "Don’t let the title of this book fool you; it isn’t making a case for the afterlife. Instead, this short read... is a collection of 40 thought exercises on the nature of existence, reality, perception, death, pain, boredom, and more. It’s remarkably elegant and fun. At the very least, it should make you appreciate your own life — warts and all — much more."


Eagleman refers to himself as a possibilian[15] and to Sum as a reflection of that position.[16][17] According to his definition, possibilianism rejects both the idiosyncratic claims of traditional theism and the certainty of atheism in favor of a middle, exploratory ground.[18] The possibilian perspective is distinguished from agnosticism in that it consists of an active exploration of novel possibilities and an emphasis on holding multiple hypotheses at once when no data is available to privilege one position over the others.[16] Possibilianism is understood to be consonant with the "scientific temperament" of creativity and tolerance for multiple ideas when there is a lack of data.[4] Speaking with the New York Times, Eagleman stated that he was working on a book entitled "Why I am a Possibilian".[19]

Related publications and performances[edit]

David Eagleman and Brian Eno performing Sum at the Sydney Opera House, June 6, 2009.

In June, 2009, Eagleman and musician Brian Eno performed a musical reading of Sum at the Sydney Opera House in Australia.[20]

In May, 2010, Sum debuted as an opera at the Royal Opera House in London.[21] The music was composed by Max Richter, with choreography by Wayne MacGregor.[22]

A September 2009 episode of Radiolab featured a discussion with Eagleman and readings of two of the stories by actor Jeffrey Tambor.[23]

The scientific journal Nature originally published one of the stories in Sum, A Brief History of Death Switches. This story was subsequently anthologized in Futures from Nature.[24]

The audiobook of Sum was narrated by Eagleman as well as by Gillian Anderson, Emily Blunt, Nick Cave, Jarvis Cocker, Jack Davenport, Lisa Dwan, Noel Fielding, Kerry Fox, Stephen Fry, Clarke Peters, Lemn Sissay and Harriet Walter. In 2010, Canongate Books, released an iPhone/iPad/iPod enhanced eBook version of Sum, integrating the audio book with the text.

Readings from the book are featured in a number of episodes of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's radio programme "WireTap":

"WireTap" episode Featured Sum story Read by Reference
"Circle of Friends" "Circle of Friends" [25]
"26 Minutes, 30 Seconds" "Sum" Jane Lewis [26]
"All Beasts Go To Heaven" "Descent of Species" Katie Malik [27]
"We Are But the Stuff of Dreams" "The Cast" Jane Lewis [28]
"The Answering Machine" "Spirals" Jane Lewis [29]
"Adhesion" "Adhesion" Elizabeth Robertson [30]
"Getting Away From It All" "Angst" Jane Lewis [31]
"A Better You" "Subjunctive" Elizabeth Robertson [32]
"The Reverse Life" "Reversal" Katie Malik [33]


  1. ^ a b c "Sum : forty tales from the afterlives". Catalog Record. Library of Congress.
  2. ^ David Eaglemans Sum (book review), Los Angeles Times, February 1, 2009. Retrieved on 2009-02-08.
  3. ^ Best Books of 2009, Barnes and Noble Review, Dec 9, 2009.
  4. ^ a b Lanham, F. Writing about what comes next. Houston Chronicle. Feb 16, 2009.
  5. ^ David Eagleman's Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives (book review), Texas Monthly, February 2009. Retrieved on 2009-02-08.
  6. ^ Book reviews, Vanity Fair, February 2009.
  7. ^ NPR's Books We Like, by Oscar Villalon, The Afterlife? Not Quite What We Were Expecting
  8. ^ Tipping, J. Sum by David Eagleman: Engaging stories about the afterlife, Dallas Morning News, February 8, 2009. Retrieved on 2009-02-08.
  9. ^ Stark, A. In Our End Is Our Beginning, Wall Street Journal, February 13, 2009.
  10. ^ Alexander McCall Smith, Eternal Whimsy: Review of David Eagleman's Sum, New York Times Book Review, June 12, 2009. Retrieved on 2009-06-14.
  11. ^ TIME Magazine's 2009 Summer Reading list, July 13, 2009.
  12. ^ Nick Lezard, Life after life explained, The Guardian, June 13, 2009.
  13. ^ Book of the week: Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlives by David Eagleman, The Week, March 6, 2009.
  14. ^ Story collection soars after Fry Tweet. Retrieved on Sept 10, 2009
  15. ^ Eagleman, David, Beyond God and atheism: Why I am a 'possibilian', 27 September 2010
  16. ^ a b NPR: Talk of the Nation, Feb 17, 2009. 'Afterlives'.
  17. ^ Choose your afterlife,, Sept 10, 2009.
  18. ^ NPR: On Point, Feb 27, 2009. 'Envisioning the Afterlife'.
  19. ^ Wilson, Blake, Stray Questions for David Eagleman,, July 10, 2009.
  20. ^ David Eagleman, Brian Eno & Friends: Tales from the Afterlives, Performance at the Sydney Opera House, June 6, 2009.
  21. ^ SUM at the Royal Opera House, retrieved Nov 22, 2012.
  22. ^ SUM: Where neuroscience and chamber opera combine, Wired, May 14, 2012.
  23. ^ "WNYC - Radiolab: After Life". September 18, 2009. Retrieved 2010-07-24.
  24. ^ Henry Gee, ed. (October 2008). Futures from Nature. Tor Books. ISBN 978-0-7653-1806-0.
  25. ^ "Circle of Friends". CBC News.
  26. ^ "26 Minutes, 30 Seconds [Season 6]". CBC News.
  27. ^ "All Beasts Go To Heaven". CBC News.
  28. ^ "We Are But the Stuff of Dreams". CBC News.
  29. ^ "The Answering Machine". CBC News.
  30. ^ "Adhesion". CBC News.
  31. ^ "Getting Away From It All". CBC News.
  32. ^ "A Better You". CBC News.
  33. ^ "The Reverse Life". CBC News.

External links[edit]