Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2005
W. W. Norton
US First Edition Hardcover
Publication Date: 10-10-2005
311 Pages; $24.95
Date Reviewed: 10-31-05
Mary Roach knows lots of things, but not necessarily, it would seem, about life. As the author of 'Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers', she spent a lot of time finding out about, well, not death, exactly, but rather, what happens to human bodies after death. Specifically, all the useful tasks that living humans find for them, from crash-testing to test-heads for would-be plastic surgeons. Her new book, 'Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife' takes up literally where 'Stiff' left off. In fact, it was part of the research that Roach did for 'Stiff' that led her to 'Spook'. In her first book, she discovered Duncan MacDougall, the man who tried to determine the weight of the human soul by measuring the weight of the human body at the moment of death. In 'Spook', Roach embarks on a search for specific scientific evidence of life after death. So once again, she uses death as a point of departure even as she brings to life that strange intersection of science, ignorance, belief and knowledge.
Once Roach establishes the parameters of her search; "...people doing research using scientific methods, preferably at respected universities or institutions"; and her approach; "...this is not a debunking book. I'm trying hard not to make assumptions, not to have an agenda," Roach clearly demonstrates the truth, at least, of her intentions. 'Spook' consists of twelve meaty, short-story length articles covering a multitude of researchers, subjects and methods. The book begins with a just-quoted 'Introduction' and concludes with the ominously named 'Last Words' where the author speaks directly to and for the reader. From the birth of the book until its last breath, 'Spook' is utterly engaging, charming, occasionally mind-boggling and always informative. Roach manages a rather incredible feat here. She offers readers a wealth of spotless, peerless and interesting information so well written that it never once seems like mere information. 'Spook' is nothing less than great reading.
That's not to say the information isn’t interesting in and of itself. Mary Roach is an excellent filter. She knows that readers desperately want to be both entertained and informed, and she works tirelessly to ensure she does both. She starts the book with an investigation of re-incarnation. To do so, she travels to New Delhi, where she meets Kirti Rawat, and discovers that the science of re-incarnation is mostly detective work. But she also uncovers Ian Sanderson, an American scientist whose work on reincarnation has been published in JAMA. She's clearly aware that readers will find that fact as amazing as the possibility of re-incarnation itself.
Not surprisingly, Roach returns to Duncan McDougall in more detail, and pursues his followers in the modern world, in this case, one Gerry Nahum. "Theorists like Nahum think of the consciousness as information content," she writes. Alas, Nahum has some problems getting his information-theory concept of the soul funded. What he'd like to do is to pretty much duplicate MacDougall's work, but with, "a mind-blowingly sensitive scale," and "arrays of electromagnetic energy detectors." But people are kind of squeamish about putting the dying in a tightly sealed box. Roach manages to have lots of fun in her prose while providing the kind of information that is, as she puts it, "understandable to any seventh grader." Fortunately, it's entertaining to all ages.
Roach also devotes a lot of space to the Spiritualist movement, and gets lots of utterly hilarious mileage out of those who perpetrated it and those who believed them. She evokes a true moment of wonder when she unpacks an actual sample of "ectoplasm" in the rare reading room of the library at Cambridge University. Whether or not the sample it self may "really" be ectoplasm is hardly the point. The reader cannot help but be thrilled by someone with enough gumption to find the sample and pull it from the box. One of the author's great strengths is her willingness to pursue her subjects beyond books to what she calls primary sources. More than a simple history of spiritualism could, the scene of the author opening that box brings home the complex and contradictory feelings we all have about life after death.
Elsewhere in the book, she pursues so-called EVP -- "Electro-voice phenomena", or more simply, talking to the dead via technology. It's an evergreen opportunity for study, because each new wave of technology -- from the telegraph to the telephone to the tape recorder to the video recorder and even email -- brings with it a new and better opportunity to connect with the dead. She investigates electromagnetically induced hallucinations with all the enthusiasm of a true Philip K. Dick fan, she turns up a legal case involving life after death and investigates the research into near-death experiences. Everywhere she goes she finds the unique bit of evidence or outré experiment that really makes sense, and she never lingers anywhere for a moment longer than gripping, can't-look-away-let-me-finish-this-first reading.
Unlike many authors of non-fiction, Roach displays a keen understanding that all the information in the world does not a whit of good unless the reader really, really wants to read it and understand it. Make no mistake about it. 'Spook' will be one of the funniest books you'll read this year and probably one of the best written. Mary Roach will tell you everything you didn't know you wanted to know about our current understanding of what happens to human consciousness after our bodies stop. 'Spook' is beautifully designed with tasteful and rather entertaining photos at the start of each chapter. Mary Roach knows a lot about death and what may or may not come afterwards, but with 'Spook' she clearly demonstrates that she knows a lot about life as well. She unerringly and intuitively knows how to be captivating and entertaining. In life, words matter, and Mary Roach knows precisely what to do with them.