Just in time for the new year, two books about gods and the afterlife. Both fiction. One short, one long. And I got them for free!
The publishers sent me reading copies, thank you very much. The short one is titled “Sum,” the long one “36 Arguments for the Existence of God.” Both are charming, even witty, but “Sum” is the one I actually read all the way through, because, well, it’s short. Perfect for my attenuated attention span.
“Sum” author David Eagleman is a neuroscientist who researches time perception, synesthesia and other exotica. “At night he writes fiction,” the publisher notes. He’s way brighter than you or me, probably owns second and third homes in Venice AND Aspen. He’s intimidating, is what David Eagleman is.
His book is fun to read: “In the afterlife you receive a clear answer about our purpose on the Earth: our mission is to collect data” begins one story.
The title story claims “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.”
There is serious purpose behind the light-hearted speculation. Eagleman is a science-based skeptic and he likes to push you off-center a bit.
Some of his imaginings contain a certain poignancy. “When you die, you are grieved by all the atoms of which you were composed... they part ways, moving off in their separate directions, mourning the loss of a special time they shared together, haunted by the feeling that they were once playing parts in something larger than themselves, something that had its own life, something they can hardly put a finger on.”
In a publisher-supplied interview the author says his stories “are not serious proposals; they’re satirical and thought provoking lenses through which to see our lives at new angles... The aim of this book is to swing a flashlight around the possibility space.”
Those intrigued by “Sum” might enjoy the deeper dive into Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s new novel “36 Arguments for the Existence of God.”
The “36 Arguments” refers to a book within the book, “The Varieties of Religious Illusion” which in Goldstein’s tale has become a surprise best-seller.
Goldstein has her own set of impressive credentials, including a doctorate in philosophy and a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award. In trying to marry fiction to philosophy she runs the risk of coming off like a pontificator, a la the wooden Ayn Rand. So far it does appear the author manages to keep it light.
Still, the underlying mood in “36 Arguments for the Existence of God” is quite serious. Goldstein acknowledges that fundamentalists of all kinds are in the ascendant. “The world shifted, catching lots of smart people off guard,” she writes, “churning up issues you thought had settled forever beneath the earth’s crust. The more sophisticated you are, the more annotated your mental life, the more taken aback you’re likely to feel, seeing what the world’s lurch has brought to light, thrusting up beliefs and desires you had assumed belonged to an earlier stage of human development.”
“It’s a tiresome proposition, having to take up the work of the Enlightenment all over again, but it’s happened on your watch,” she says.
In an appendix after the novel each of those 36 arguments for the existence of god is spelled out and rationally critiqued. That section alone could keep you entertained while brooding by the fire during long winter nights.
“Sum, Forty Tales from the Afterlives” by David Eagleman. Vintage Books paperback $13. ISBN 9780307389930.
About the title, Eagleman notes in the interview: “First, it’s Latin for ‘I am,’ as in Cogito ergo sum. Second, it’s related to the Greek term for the highest, as in summa cum laude, or the English word summit. Third, the point of this book is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. As you read the stories, it becomes clear that they are mutually exclusive and that there’s something bigger emerging from adding them all together.”
“36 Arguments for the Existence of God, A Work of Fiction” by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Pantheon Books hard cover $27.95. ISBN 9780307378187.
For Rebecca Goldstein take a look at this site, and for David Eagleman this one.