Speaking With the Dead: A Review of Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach

Posted: February 20, 2014 in Books, Humor, Non-Fiction, Reviews, Science
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Spook is the second Mary Roach book I’ve read in the last year or so, and I picked it up based on how much I enjoyed the other one, Packing for Mars – you can read my review of it here. This time out, Roach investigates the ultimate question: what happens to us after we die? Her research takes her everywhere from pseudo-scientific cattle scales used at the turn of the last century, to modern university research departments, and lots of places in-between. So where do we end up? Click through after the break to find out.

Spooks is a natural follow-up for Roach’s previous book, Stiff, which examines the death industry. This is a very human subject – obviously, we all die, so the topic is highly relevant. However, what happens after is not nearly so cut and dried. It’s safe to say that most of us end up, at some point in our lives, asking ourselves that most essential of questions: where do we go after we die? People have historically relied on religion to answer this question for them: Heaven, Paradise, Valhalla, Nirvana, all places that represent the best of worlds, a reward for virtue, devotion, and sacrifice in life. This is not, however, the case for a growing number of individuals as scientific advances, among other societal changes, cause increased secularization in most of the developing world. Still, Roach begins her research at the crossroads of religion and science, when she goes to India to investigate reincarnation. She follows a scientist who is doing research on the topic, interviewing families with children who claim to have past life knowledge. As it turns out, the family that is being investigated when Roach is there turns out to be more wishful thinking than reincarnation. The interesting thing to note here is that, despite the veneer of science, this research is entirely based on anecdotes, and the misses are ignored while the hits are promoted. Cherry picking at best, but Roach doesn’t call out her host in a nasty way; rather, she uses her good humor to make observations that, for the reader, clearly show what she thinks about the situation.

Additional visits take her to the Donner Pass where she joins a group trying to capture the whispers of long-dead (cannibalized?) settlers; to England, where she joins a class for Mediums, only to discover that she hasn’t a psychic bone in her body; to Canada, for sensory deprivation and EMF pulses into her brain, in an attempt to elicit hallucinations; and to Mocksville, North Carolina, where, with the aid of a handwriting expert, she examines two wills – one found with the purported aid of the ghost of the deceased – only to find that the ghostly will is most likely a forgery (despite being found legal by a court when it was first brought forward). I wonder if this means the writer is spinning in his grave?

Roach’s writing style can best be described as humorously readable. She is self-deprecating, but not annoying; funny, without stretching for a laugh; and thorough, without burdening with footnotes. While I don’t mind footnotes, they can detract from the readability of a book, and ultimately, Roach is going for a pop-culture approach to a rather heavy topic. It works well, although it isn’t the in-depth scientific examination of life after death that some may be searching for. If you enjoy good writing, a bit of a laugh, and are curious about who is researching what when it comes to the afterlife, then this just might be the book for you.

Steve’s Grade: B

A lighthearted romp through a heavy topic, done with a mind open to the possibilities. While there is no clear conclusion by the end of the book, Roach does cover a lot of very interesting ground. Ultimately, we’ll only get the answer to the ultimate question when we, ourselves, die.


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