Publisher: Vintage Books, 2009
My Rating: 4.5 stars (Make Time For This One)
What a strange and wondrous little book this is! The concept is very easy to describe―neuroscientist David Eagleman imagines 40 different possible afterlives―but the details and scenarios that Eagleman imagines are delightfully inventive. Each afterlife is described in a just a few pages, but Eagleman’s ideas are so odd and fascinating that you feel like taking a moment after each one to ponder what you’ve just read. After all, we’re not talking angels and harps here! Probably the best way to give you a feel for the book is to excerpt just a few of the concepts that Eagleman throws out there.
From Sum: “In the afterlife you relive all your experiences, but this time with the events reshuffled into a new order: all the moments that share a quality are grouped together. You spend two months driving the street in front of your house, seven months having sex. You sleep for thirty years without opening your eyes. For five months straight you flip through magazines while sitting on a toilet.”
From Circle of Friends: “When you die, you feel as though there were some subtle change, but everything looks approximately the same. You get up and brush your teeth. You kiss your spouse and kids and leave for the office. There is less traffic than normal. The rest of your building seems less full, as though it’s a holiday. But everyone in your office is here, and they greet you kindly. You feel strangely popular. Everyone you run into is someone you know. At some point, it dawns on you that this is the afterlife: the world is only made up of people you’ve met before.”
From The Cast: “…But it turns out you missed the mark. It is not life that is a dream; it is death that is a dream. Stranger still, it is not your dream; it is someone elses’s. You now recall that your dreams always had background characters: the crowds in the restaurant, the knots of people in the malls and schoolyards, the other drivers on the road and the jaywalking pedestrians. Those actors don’t come from nowhere. We stand in the background, playing our part, allowing the experience to feel real for the dreamer…This is not a job choice but indenture: you owe the same number of hours of services as you spent dreaming during your lifetime.”
From Metamorphosis: “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 you name is spoken for the last time. So you wait in this lobby until the third death….”
From Subjunctive: “In the afterlife, you are judged not against other people, but against yourself. Specifically, you are judged against what you could have been. So the afterworld is much like the present world, but it now includes all the yous that could have been.”
Eagleman isn’t afraid to play with the concept of God either. In one scenario, God is a microbe completely unaware of our existence. In another, God is a married couple. In still another, we discover that our Creators are “… a species of small, dim-witted, obtuse creatures.” In other scenarios, God doesn’t exist at all; the afterlife is run by Technicians or Cartographers or Collectors.
I just loved this book! It was so imaginative and quirky and odd. I couldn’t wait to read the next idea that Eagleman had dreamed up. Eagleman’s writing is simple and precise, but the concepts that he describes are so diverse―an intoxicating mixture of the odd, mundane, ridiculous, comforting, inspiring, humorous and sad―that I never knew what was coming next. I’m quite sure this book isn’t for everyone. If you’re pretty set in your ideas of what God is like and what the afterlife will be, I’m sure you may find this book bordering on sacrilege. For others, this book will be what I imagine Eagleman intended it to be: a mind-trip into a time and place that none of us really understand or know. Consider it fantasy or science fiction … but consider reading it if what I’ve described appeals to your sense of curiosity or whimsy.
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Whys and Wheres: I won a copy of this book in a giveaway on Alyce’s wonderful blog At Home With Books. I had my heart set on getting a copy after I had read her review, and it was everything I thought it would be and more.