Jonathan Franzen on the impermanence of ebooks

Franzen's 'The Corrections'

Jonathan Franzen has caused a stir by critiquing ebooks in what appears on the surface to be an outmoded and backward-looking account of their usefulness. I liked his The Corrections a great deal and Freedom, too, so I thought I’d not just quietly dismiss his comments and probe a little deeper.

I think the gist of what he’s saying is based upon the notion of impermeability of printed books, their ability to remain steady when all about is changing:

When I read a book, I’m handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing – that’s reassuring.

He has probably been impressed by the fact that books can be changed, or even erased, in that infamous case of Amazon. I think, perhaps in time of technology torment (when we can’t get our broadband to work or the update screen keeps appears over our presentation) that we wish for something substantial, something we can hold on to and understand immediately. Franzen then turns to the ways in which he sees printed books as a gesture to certainty:

Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.

When a popular book is published at the moment there is a both a printed book and an ebook version. In both cases, the author has paid equal attention and care to the words he or she has used – the texts are identical. But Franzen perhaps reveals his latent prejudices here: he suggests that if you’re a writer solely of ebooks (and perhaps self-published, selling large volume at low prices) then you don’t pay enough care and attention to your work. In creative terms, Franzen is creating a pernicious hierarchy where paper is at the top and ebooks somewhere below.

That said, Franzen does raise some significance points about scholarship, perhaps inadvertently. Say, for example, a scholar now or in the near future is interested in a writer whose development of an idea is outlined in a series of blog posts. Technically, we can capture that blog at any one given time and archive it. But I’m not sure this will be done and it’s possible that the source of their ideas will be lost. We know, for example, that Shakespeare read The Bishop’s Bible and how, therefore, he might be directly influence by its particular approach – its language, themes, interpretation and so on. Can we say the same for writers who use more transitory formats for their sources and development (given they are more transitory)? The likelihood is that we’ll develop new ways of creating books, electronic or printed, some more transitory than others, but that will result in a text that is subject to change – something that we’ll get used to and no doubt welcome.

Franzen extends his idea about the necessity for permanence for literature by contemplating a more transitory culture. He asks:

Will there still be readers 50 years from now who feel that way? Who have that hunger for something permanent and unalterable? I don’t have a crystal ball. But I do fear that it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.

Moving sideways, there remain reasons to still like the printed book. We cannot forget the aesthetic pleasure of handling a physical object like a book well-made. Or seeing – and smelling – shelves of them when we enter an ancient bookstore. The two are different pleasures, almost opposite ends of the continuum: we enjoy the splendour of a weighty, new, uncreased volume as well as the the dirt and (moderate) annotations of the book’s previous owner. Franzen doesn’t address all of the ebook’s contributions to literature and why should he – this has been done elsewhere, and rightly, too.

It remains instead that the ebook’s  (to use a horrible term but one which perfectly captures the stark cost-benefit analysis of this pressing issue) affordances so outweigh its shortcomings that only the most dolefully nostalgic reader will not forever leave the Kindle on the shelf.


Three types of allusion in Julian Barnes’ novel, ‘The Sense of an Ending’: Part 2 – Larkin and accumulation

Philip Larkin

In the first part of this three-part series, I wrote about the use of what I call ‘simple’ allusion in Julian Barnes’ novel, The Sense of an Ending. In this second part, I turn to a ‘complex’ allusion, where the novelist discusses ideas of accumulation, growth and loss by referring – indirectly – to the poetry of Philip Larkin.

Unlike our ‘simple’ example of allusion, where the author’s name – Stefan Zweig in this case – is referred to directly, the reference to Larkin is not direct and he is not alluded to by name. Despite this, I think we can learn a great deal about the themes of loss, accumulation and growth by thinking about Larkin’s work when reading The Sense of an Ending.

A key theme of the novel is that addition – of a lover, a job, a car and house, etc – needn’t mean a positive improvement. This is also a central preoccupation of some Larkin’s poetry, who I claim is indirectly referred to as ‘the poet’ in the novel, as we find in this extract (my emphasis):

‘He took his own life’ is the phrase; but Adrian also took charge of his own life, he took command of it… How few of us – we that remain – can say that we have done the same? We muddle along, we let life happen to us, we gradually build up a store of memories. There is the question of accumulation, but not in the sense that Adrian meant, just the simple adding up and adding on of life. As the poet pointed out, there is a difference between addition and increase.

Here, I take ‘the poet’ to refer to Larkin and the poem in which he ‘pointed out’ this idea to be ‘Dockery and Son’. Here is the key section from the poem (the poem needs to be read in full to make complete sense):

[…] Dockery, now:
Only nineteen, he must have taken stock
Of what he wanted, and been capable
Of […] how

Convinced he was he should be added to!
Why did he think adding meant increase?
To me it was dilution.

The narrator of the poem, like Antony in the novel, compares himself to a peer and what he finds is that addition, rather than ‘increase’, means dilution. It is a compelling, counter-intuitive idea that is captured in Larkin’s brief lines and which is explored more fully in Barnes’ novel. Barnes, like Larkin, not only challenges the very things that we ‘accumulate’ – people, things, memories –but like Larkin, disputes the very idea of accumulation as a profitable gain.

The path that Antony follows is one that many of us take: we approach life without guidance from a series of carefully-considered plans, and go on to make decisions as the opportunity arises; rather than seek out new horizons, we continue on our path of least resistance. This is why Adrian is significant a character in the novel and for Antony – he takes ‘his own life’, which literally means suicide but also suggests he takes control, makes conscious decisions rather than fulfil our obligation in the status quo. Larkin again, from ‘Dockery and Son’:

Where do these
Innate assumptions come from? Not from what
We think truest, or most want to do:
Those warp tight-shut, like doors. They’re more a style
Our lives bring with them: habit for a while,
Suddenly they harden into all we’ve got.

The notion of ‘hardening’, that almost physiological image, reminds us that accumulation may as equally lead to a stopping heaviness as well as a comfortable ballast. Larkin used a similar image in ‘Afternoons’, a poem that laments the loss of innocence and energy of whose lives have become unravelled by time:

Their beauty has thickened.
Something is pushing them
To the side of their own lives.

The imagery of a person ‘thickening’ brings with it a sense of solidity; it is a comfortable state but a stagnant one and the weight of accumulations ties us to that very lethargy that removes from us the ability to shake off the weight of our encumbrances and start afresh. We’re tethered by our accumulations, like a balloon; they clip our wings.

I call these examples ‘complex’ because they do not directly refer to a specific poet or poem in name but they do share a more than coincidental connection to some of the themes. That is – it is complex because it is a significant theme, or motif, that runs throughout the novel. Referring to another treatment of this theme – by, in this case, the ‘poet’ – helps develop the meaning and effect of the allusion. It is true that the reference is short and does not reappear in quite this manner again. But it is a theme that lingers throughout the novel grows in complexity as we read on.

In the final part, I will discuss the ‘resonant’ allusive relationship between The Sense of an Ending and the work of literary criticism which shares its name.

Coda – accumulation and responsibility, from Sex Lies and Videotape

The notion that addition meaning dilution is not uncommon. In Steven Soderbergh’s film Sex Lies and Videotape (a deeply ‘intertextual’ film, in that it depends upon other films for effect), James Spader’s character Graham Dalton explains why he is reluctant to look for an apartment in this clip. Dalton finds the addition of keys – symbols of responsibility and security – an undesirable dilution to his freedom.


Three types of allusion in Julian Barnes’ novel, ‘The Sense of an Ending’: Part 1 – ‘simple’ allusion

Over the course of the next three blog posts, I discuss the role of allusion – the reference to one text from within another – in Julian Barnes’ Man Booker Prize winning novel, The Sense of an Ending.

The Sense of an Ending is a novel that depends upon documents, or texts – its own and others – to create meaning and effect. Its ‘own’ documents are letters, diaries and emails that appear within the text to help create the plot, chart the unfolding of a life, and bring together two disparate characters through whom we come to understand more about how another lived and died. The ‘other’ documents are those texts to which it refers, its allusions – other literary works, including criticism – to create a resonance beyond its pages. The analysis contains spoilers.

My three areas of focus show different levels of sophistication in the use of allusion in the novel. In order, I discuss:

  • the simple allusion, as a brief reference to another author, which is not discussed in detail in the novel
  • the complex allusion, where I focus on novel’s interaction with the work of poet Philip Larkin, and particular the motifs of loss, accumulation, and age
  • the resonant allusion, where no detailed specific reference is made to another text but which occurs when the ideas of another text illuminate, reflect or chime with such resonance that we are compelled to read them alongside one another. In this case, that text is one that shares its name, Frank Kermode’s seminal critical work, The Sense of an Ending.

The novel is not highly allusive in the way that T S Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ is; but it does use a few, carefully positioned texts that we can interpret as important and which tell us something about the novel. It is those allusions that are my interest here.

Some allusions are more easily discovered than others and when found, there is a range of complexity in terms of their meaning and effect. But here it’s worth remembering that it would be equally natural to miss or ignore such an allusion, too: the novel is self-standing, self-contained: and what I might find allusive because of my reading and experience might not be the same as what you think is important.

I start here with a ‘simple’ example of literary allusion, one where the name of an author appears in the text and we are invited to interpret what it means. 

Part One: Simple allusion – judging a reader by the book they’re reading

The appearance of a book title or author’s name in a novel functions in an obvious sense to reveal something about their reader: as we judge people by the clothes they wear, the food they eat and the cars they drive, the book one reads seems to provide an equally penetrating insight, perhaps even more so. When Antony meets Veronica in the café, he asks:

What are you reading?

She turned the cover of her paperback towards me. Something by Stefan Zweig.

How we interpret the significance of this inclusion, in short, what we take the ‘cultural value’ of Zweig to be in this specific context, depends on how much we know about Zweig. So, who is Stefan Zweig and what does including a non-specific title mean? This is what Wikipedia says about him:

Stefan Zweig (November 28, 1881 – February 23, 1942) was an Austrian novelist, playwright, journalist and biographer. At the height of his literary career, in the 1920s and 1930s, he was one of the most famous writers in the world.

I think from this phrase we might think ‘he was one of the most famous writers in the world’ is most telling. I wonder how many people would have heard of Zweig, let alone read him. There is more on his reputation here:

Zweig was a very prominent writer in the 1920s and 1930s, and befriended Arthur Schnitzler and Sigmund Freud. He was extremely popular in the USA, South America and Europe, and remains so in continental Europe; however, he was largely ignored by the British public, and his fame in America has since dwindled. Since the 1990s there has been an effort on the part of several publishers (notably Pushkin Press and New York Review of Books) to get Zweig back into print in English. Zweig is best known for his novellas […], novels […] and biographies

As I’ve said, if we know nothing, then the allusion will mean little to us. If we know that he was once a well-known writer but that his reputation had suffered over the years we might reflect on how this relates to Veronica, who is reading him, and reinforce the book’s themes in general, such as the effects of time passing and the waning of reputation.

However, looking more closely, we find that he wrote a novel called Letter from an Unknown Woman. Wikipedia says of it: “it tells the story of an author who, while reading a letter written by a woman he does not remember, gets glimpses into her life story.”

Clearly, this has some resonance for The Sense of an Ending: Veronica, up until now, is more or less unknown to Antony, and how much he knows about her is a point upon which the plot hinges. Veronica may be reading a book that knowingly (for Barnes and his readers) echo her and Antony’s relationship. We can’t be sure, because all we know is that it is ‘something’ by Zweig, as far as Antony reveals. Such a paucity of information may reveal either an indifference, ignorance or rejection of Zweig by Antony – we cannot be sure. But it does introduce the idea that the value of the author’s name is seen through Antony’s perspective: therefore we need to make an imaginative leap if we are to interpret it through his eyes. Overall, the allusion is inconclusive in this respect, since we are uncertain as to what it means for Antony. It is equally significant that Veronica does not tell Antony what the novel is called or who it’s by, or offer comment or evaluation – he is left, like us, to interpret it without further information. Overall, it is a stark, brief and limited allusion which refuses to reveal a great deal whilst tantalising suggesting some interesting connections outside of the novel.

Despite the potential complexity of how we interpret what referring to Zweig means, I call it a simple example of literary allusion because Barnes does not discuss the reference in detail, nor does it illuminate the novel with any sophistication. It does not add a layer of complexity in terms of how it is expressed; rather, it is a single point of reference to another work amongst many others, implicit or explicit.

That is not to say it doesn’t have resonance for the reader, depending on how much they know about Zweig, his life and work. Rather, when we compare it to the other kinds of literary allusion in The Sense of an Ending, we can see that it lacks the depth and complexity by comparison. In a sense, reading Zweig is rather like an adjective, albeit a loaded one: it has a similar density to writing that Veronica was wearing (say) a ‘shabby’ coat, or curled her lip when she spoke (neither of which are true but are used for illustration).

It is to such another, more sophisticated example of allusion that I turn in the next part. Here, I will be looking at focussing on how the novel alludes to the work of the poet Philip Larkin, and especially the notion that accumulation – of a lover, a job, a car and a house – need not mean a positive addition to one’s life.

Jeremy Clarkson’s outrageous politically incorrect opinions, which he has for money

There is currently a controversy in the UK surrounding comments made by Jeremy Clarkson, presenter of the tv show Top Gear. I won’t repeat them here – I think they were in bad taste and it depends upon how far you think the person behind a poorly-considered joke should be punished when gauging the outcome – suffice to say they have attracted over 21,000 complaints to the BBC, who broadcast them.

I’m not the first to post the follow video in response and I won’t be the last. But Stewart Lee’s brilliant, edgy response to Clarkson and his approach captures what this kind of comedy means and the distinction between fiction and reality (it’s potentially offensive and not suitable for work).

It reminds me a little of using ‘LOL’ or a smiley face in online posts. You can more or less say what you want, as long as you suffix it with  🙂


Robert Coover’s very short story: ‘Going for a beer’

I find myself sitting at home on my own reading Robert Coover’s very short story ‘Going for a beer’ at about the same time that I began to think about reading it. In fact, I’ve finished it…

This short story is one of the best I’ve read for ages. It’s often said of the short story that it doesn’t allow for the kind of expansive and explored development of the lifetime of a character as the novel does. Whilst this might be true, there’s no reason why, even in a very compressed period of time, a life can’t be captured. That’s just what Coover has done here.

He finds himself sitting in the neighborhood bar drinking a beer at about the same time that he began to think about going there for one. In fact, he has finished it. Perhaps he’ll have a second one, he thinks, as he downs it and asks for a third. There is a young woman sitting not far from him who is not exactly good-looking but good-looking enough, and probably good in bed, as indeed she is. Did he finish his beer? Can’t remember. What really matters is: Did he enjoy his orgasm? Or even have one? This he is wondering on his way home through the foggy night streets from the young woman’s apartment…

Brilliantly inventive, its playful handling of time is a joy to read – and, like the life it describes and that which this life represents, is over too quickly, too.

A life less ordinary: William Boyd’s ‘Any Human Heart’

A life less ordinary

What an audacious ambition – to write the life of another, from the teenage years until the moment just before death. That’s what William Boyd has attemped with his novel ‘Any Human Heart’. Through a series of candid and frequent, if not exhaustive, journal entries we come to learn about the thoughts, feelings and events in Logan Mountstuart’s life: his uncertain academic path at university; his intellectual development and his writing; his loves, friendship, affairs, his wives and children; and finally, his old age and death.

This novel is wonderfully evocative of a past that many of us know only from history books and films, but which we’ve never lived through. Placing a flesh-and-blood character at the centre of such pivotal times and places adds an enormous dimension, bringing them closer for us to not only see but to feel. Paris in the early 20th century, London during the blitz, New York during the volatile but economically booming years: this novel provides a vibrant and sustained insight into some of the 20th century’s most fascinating times and places, from the perspective of events during Logan Mountstuart’s life.

And it’s the events, especially, that Logan (one feels comfortable calling him by his first name, since we come to know him so well) shares with his unintended, unconsidered, unknown audience. Despite the opportunity offered by the candid qualities of the journal format, the novel is essentially plot-driven rather than reflective or philosophical. Boyd takes seriously Henry James’ edict that one must not ‘attempt to know any human heart’.

Instead, we come to know Logan through his actions and trace a path of highs and lows through his rich and busy life. But this isn’t a novel in which one can readily associate with the central character because Logan lived a life that is far from commonplace. This is not an exhaustive list, but a representative one: Logan quickly becomes a published author upon leaving Oxford. His intellectual curiosity and impatience with his home in England takes him to Paris and later Spain, where he meets a series of well-known cultural figures, including Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso and most significantly for this novel, the abdicated former king, now Prince Edward VIII and his wife, Wallis Simpson. He witnesses the civil war in Spain; parachutes into Switzerland during World War II to aid the Allies; is captured as a spy and kept in a cell overlooking Lake Geneva; becomes an art dealer in New York during the 1960s; and eventually retires to France and dies there.

Contemplation and action: Woolf and Hemingway

We’re given a clue as to the kind of approach this novel takes in its treatment of two literary figures, Woolf and Hemingway.

Virginia Woolf

Woolf, whom Logan meets in England, arguably most successfully fulfils her Modernist ambitions in the short story ‘Kew Gardens’. In this story she takes the iconoclastic step of focussing, in minute detail and over a relatively prolonged period, on flowers growing in a flowerbed; the random flight of a dragonfly; and later on a snail trying to reach its goal. Against this seemingly unpromising background she sets the lives of several characters who congregate at different times around the flowerbeds in which the flowers and creatures are to be found. In doing so, she shows how these two different worlds – of the mundane, trivial world of the insects and those troubles of the characters who pass by unaware – are intimately connected. It is a story that seeks to introduce subtly drawn, ungilded, commonplace moments as a highly revealing subject for fiction – even if that revelation lacks the kind of narrative resolution that many short stories of the time possessed. Woolf’s writing, in this respect, represents an interest in the revelatory power of the commonplace, even banal, aspects of life. Its method is to emphasise the thoughtful, subtle, nuanced aspects of human thought and feeling.

In contrast, Ernest Hemingway writes stories on grand themes, populated with heroes and anti-heroes, which often focus upon intense human suffering as painted on the broad canvas of war. His collection ‘In Our Time’, for example, bears the scars of war most notably, as men (rarely women) try to come to terms with lives destroyed by modern warfare. His ‘romantic egoism’ as Jay McInerney called it, is far removed from Woolf’s abnegation of the self in her Modernist writing. In the kind of simple description of what is a much more complex reality, Hemingway’s writing is characterised by activity at the margins of human experience; Woolf’s by contemplation of the commonplace and its amazing revelatory power.

Ernest Hemingway

Woolf is lambasted in the novel as socially intimidating, elitist, almost inhuman (interestingly, a new biography asserts that Woolf was more politically engaged and less socially detached than might otherwise be thought). Hemingway, on the other hand, is celebrated as a man of action: he summons his car in war-torn Spain and accompanies Logan on a hunt to find a man with a mysterious gift (the gift is a notable collection of expensive paintings wrapped in a carpet, intended for a friend of Logan’s who dies: Logan keeps the paintings and sells them later).

In turn, Boyd rejects the purely contemplative approach and follows the path of action. He answers the question ‘who would want to read a series of journals based upon an ordinary life?’ – by writing of a life full of incident, heroically lived. But in doing so, Boyd has created a sometimes old-fashioned story of derring do, which flirts with the extremes in human emotion and action and as a result lacks a handle which we might turn to open the door of Logan’s heart. At worst, he is dangerously close to farce by the time he writes Logan as an imprisoned spy: at the end of the novel we learn and remember much more about the events of his life than we do about how he feels or thought about them.

Despite this, there are moments when such extremes of experience is thwarted or restrained. During his period as a journalist in Spain during the 1930s, Logan fires a machine gun at some fascists in an approaching car. Although they appear to take evasive action, their distance makes it impossible to tell. This notion of distance – that Logan skirts around but rarely penetrates the prized inner circle – goes some way in providing a connection between the reader and the life of Logan. But for some it might not be enough. This isn’t our life we watch stretched out over 80 odd years of intermittently completed journals: it’s the life of someone else, someone better connected, luckier (as the novel’s main thrust would have it) than our own. As such, perhaps it’s a critique on our contemporary society, sterile as it sits in front of computer screens, tracking the world in rolling news.

It is a simple line to draw to connect Logan’s relationship with the novel’s attitude to the characters of Woolf and Hemingway and what this reveals about Boyd’s attitude to his chosen approach. It’s churlish, of course, to berate an author for writing about this or that, in this way or that, instead of another. And it’s a coarse analysis to suggest that Woolf writing was purely contemplative, Hemingway’s purely interested in action. Nevertheless, it is revealing that these two writers hold significantly different positions on the ways in which fiction is written and its ‘proper’ subject; and how their treatment in the novel reflects Boyd’s approach to capturing a life.

A luckier life

Logan's life stages, from the TV production

There are memories, dreams, reflections – many of which appear close to the end of the novel and therefore Logan’s life, as befits a life already lived, then weighed and considered. The central idea of the novel – expressed in a rare foray into summarising in a work that is overwise joyously bereft of cod-psychology, armchair philosophy or home-spun contemplation – is that the value of your life is expressed as a sum of the the luck you have, good and bad.

But this is not borne out by the book or Logan’s life. Rather, he continually takes the opportunities when offered to him: and when they are not, he seeks them. Some of those – like his art dealings – are the result of contacts he has made throughout his life. Lucky, yes. But the manner in which he deals with a troublesome colleague in the art world relies less on luck than it does with deliberate, carefully considered decision. Elsewhere, the luck he possesses is a result of who he knows. In a reduced analysis, he becomes a spy because he plays golf with James Bond author Ian Fleming; or a pawn in a radicalised anti-capitalist plot because he can no longer to afford not to eat dog food for dinner.

This does Logan, and the reader, a disservice. It implies there is an essential quality to Logan which sees his life spread out before him, with an uncontrollable and random force of luck as the only influence, when in fact he makes his life what it is, just as we do. We are all subject to the whim of luck but even embracing such caprice we make our own fate; in this novel it is Logan’s fate to live an extraordinary life which we will either be impressed and inspired by, or find lethally out of reach.

Charles Baudelaire wrote of his ‘Journaux Intimes’ (‘Intimate Journals’) that a work that simply captured the mind of a genius – unmediated, without explanation, without recourse to literary conventions – would necessarily be a masterpiece. In his journals, he tried to achieve just that. But it was a failed experiment: the work wasn’t a masterpiece. But it is instructive because it tells us that the unmediated life, captured verbatim, contains no less an authentic story. As JG Ballard wrote, you fictionalise to reach the truth. And the truth of this novel is that we do not – cannot – understand Logan Mountstuart’s very human heart, just as we cannot know the heart of anyone else, including our ourself.

Book review: ‘Sum: Tales from the Afterlives’ by David Eagleman (in the style of David Eagleman’s ‘Sum’)

Sum: Tales from the Afterlives

When you die, you spend your time re-reading through all the books you read when you were alive and think more carefully about them. You explore all the possibilities they offer, follow all the narrative threads, contemplate the characters, plot themes and writing style. In short, you’re given as long as it takes to read and digest only the books you’ve already read. This might be a shorter afterlife for some than others. Reading books at all, let alone contemplating them, might have been a problem when you were alive because – well, we’ve all been busy. We sometimes skip pages, even chapters. But when you’re dead you have more time. As much time as you need, in fact.

You re-read and re-interpret the books in death in the sequence that you read and interpreted them in life. This has the advantage of gently easing you into your long-term past-time because the books we read as children are quite easy to grasp. You may have forgotten that you’ve read ‘Spot is Missing’ or a ‘Dr Seuss’ story, but there it is. Take your time.

Aeons, books pass. You have to squeeze all the meaning and effect out of them. It is tiring. Sometimes it is a blessing, sometimes a curse. Millions of years pass before you start on your first ‘Famous Five’ story and work begins on those teenage novels.

By the time you reach David Eagleman’sSum: Tales from the Afterlives‘, you’re an old hand at reading and thinking about books. You’ve done it before. You’ve read some heavyweights in your time, too: Shakespeare, ‘Moby Dick’, a handful of Russian novels. You think there is little that can surprise you. Given the time you’ve spent reading and thinking, you can be forgiven for being a little jaded. So you’re relieved to find ‘Sum’ quite short and in big type, too. This won’t take long, relatively speaking.

But you find that when you’re reading the forty different stories about what happens when we die that you’re more impressed than you thought you might be. This really is something, you think. These short stories – imaginings, really, thought pieces that speculate with great originality on worlds that lie beyond death – are quite unlike anything you’ve ever read.

Take, for example, the story called ‘Circle of Friends’ that describes an afterlife in which the only people who exist for you in your afterlife are those you remember from your life. At first it seems great, because all those people you were meaningfully connected with while you were alive – your lovers, family and close friends, your schoolmates and teachers – they are all there, just as they ever were. But after a while you realise that there are so many other people you are destined never to meet, because you don’t remember them from life. You complain about it but no one listens or sympathises because ‘this is precisely what you chose when you were alive’.

When you’re reading ‘Sum’, you start to think – just how do these stories make me feel? Mostly, they make you feel that you should have done more when you were alive. ‘Circle of Friends’ makes you feel like you should have gotten to know more people, those people that were on the outskirts of your life, or even those you saw every day or lived near or shared a workplace with.

In other stories, you read about god, or gods – sometimes they are frail and ‘human’, at other times unrecognisable from the tales you learnt when you were alive. Another story outlines how, in the afterlife, you can choose to be any animal you like when you live again. Someone chooses a horse- for the simplicity, the grace, the uncomplicated sense of ‘being’ one imagines – but immediately regrets doing so, as they feel the inevitable and irreversible emotional and intellectual decline that having a horse’s mind and intellect brings for someone human.

Your head begins to spin as you wonder if you’ll ever have enough time to think about all the ideas this book touches upon. At the same time, you’ve got an idea that these forty very short tales tell more or less the same message. And you find yourself wanting to go back to being alive so you can share that message: that your life means ‘precisely what you choose when you were alive’. It is how you will be remembered, how you will remember. You wish you had read more books, listened more, thought more carefully about the stories that open at each instance of your life – all so the sum of your (after)life would be the greater.

In the afterlife, at the end of reading each book you are asked if you would recommend it to others, knowing they might have to read and think about it for centuries. For ‘Sum: Tales of the Afterlives’ the short answer is a definite ‘yes’. The long answer will take a lot longer to explain.