Holiday Reads: Craig O’Hara Recommends David Eagleman

Welcome to Holiday Reads!

In this segment, Ball State English brings you a selection of recommended reads just in time for the Winter Break.

In this post, Assistant Professor Craig O’Hara recommends Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman.

Why should we read this, Craig?

Brevity can be one of the most difficult things to accomplish in a work of art. How much can a writer really say about our troubling and beautiful human existence in less than ten pages? In less than five? One of the reasons I never fail to recommend the flash fiction pieces in David Eagleman’s Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives to students, colleagues, and pretty much anyone else who will listen is that Eagleman does so much to illuminate and complicate our view of existence in just two or three pages. As if that weren’t enough, those few pages present his artistic vision in a way that always seems to surprise, astonish, and entertain. A combination like that–well, now you have fiction truly worth reading.

As the title indicates, Sum posits forty different possible afterlives in forty brief fictions. These afterlives range from the literary—after your death, you find that Mary Shelley runs the universe and that God is holed up in his room reading Frankenstein over and over again–to the scientific—you find that we are merely machines, a biological form of technology, created by a society of beings far less intelligent than us to seek the big philosophical answers of the universe. What makes the wide variety of afterlives in these stories so consistently compelling are the startling revelations they bring to the reader, for example that Frankenstein is, of course, the only book to which a creator deity could relate. Or finding out in the afterlife that we are technology created by people who cannot fathom our thought processes, which leads us to see just how thinly we can really grasp the workings of the technology we ourselves have created.​ It seems every realization in this collection hits like a bag of cold nickels to the head—always surprising yet blatantly obvious.

Certainly a story collection focused on what happens after we die runs the risk of becoming a cosmic-sized bummer, but Eagleman fashions his tales such that the reader is much more likely to bust out laughing at the beautiful absurdity of existence rather than rush off to stick her head in the nearest oven in a fit of angst over life’s futility. After all, who cannot help but chuckle considering, as you might while reading the title story “Sum,” that an afterlife of reliving your current life experiences rearranged by a shared quality rather than by chronology would mean that “for five months straight you flip through magazines while sitting on the toilet” and once finished, never do so again and spend “four minutes wondering what your life would be like if you reshuffled the order of events.”

But it is the wonderful brevity of the pieces that keeps me coming back to this collection. And it’s also what drives me to recommend the book so widely. Even after my initial reading a couple years ago, I keep my copy handy for those few minutes here and there when I need a quick and humorous dose of some strange combination of art, science, philosophy, and plain old playfulness. Each dose distilled down to the essentials of good literature—revelation, beauty, a hint of humor, and a compelling exploration of just what “truth” might turn to be when all else in life is done and over with.

Eagleman, David. Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives. New York: Random, 2009. Print.

Thanks for the recommendation!

Stay tuned for more Holiday Reads in the coming week.

Do you have a book recommendation? Want to write a short blog post about it? Email cday (at)) bsu {dot} edu with your recommendation, and you just might be featured on this blog!

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