Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach (W.W. Norton and Co., 2006)
Reviewed by Rebecca Valley
Mary Roach’s name has been floating around in my brain for years. I own (but haven’t yet read) her book Stiff, and about two years ago I listened to an interview with Radiolab about her book Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, where she talks about sticking her hand through an incision in a cow’s side and feeling around in its intestines while it stood there, very much alive. I discovered Spook in a used bookstore in the basement floor of Pike Place market — it was my first long-term foray into Roach’s brand of investigative science journalism, and I devoured the book over the course of a few evenings. I loved this book so much I even brought it to the gym.
Mary Roach is a funny lady. She makes reviewing her books as a “serious academic” nearly impossible, because her narrative voice is unabashedly honest and occasionally vulgar in a way that uber-polite academic writing can’t quite master. I love this about Roach. She admits in her acknowledgements that she might be the only successful author in the world who writes books about subjects she knows nothing about, and I think her success lies in the open-minded, sometimes naively curious way that she approaches each investigation. In Spook in particular, where the subject matter deals with faith, this kind of approach is essential.
In terms of its content, Spook is a smorgasbord of pseudo-science, spiritualism, ectoplasm and EEGs. The book discusses the many ways that human beings (and scientists more specifically) have attempted to discover the secrets of the afterlife. Over the course of her 300-page book, Roach enrolls in medium school, allows a neuroscientist to stimulate the part of the brain responsible for visual and aural hallucinations, unravels “alleged ectoplasm” (127) in the Cambridge University library, and accompanies the International Ghost Hunters Society on a tour bus to the Donner Camp Picnic Ground. One of the greatest joys of reading this book is marveling over Roach’s interactions with the many experts she interviews – each reads like a caricature, but Roach’s self-deprecating sense of humor and equal opportunity philosophy on mockery makes it feel less malicious and more like a bizarre, uncertain appreciation for the many personalities that walk the Earth.
Despite its comical nature, Spook does serious work in its examination of human ingenuity and our deep-seated desire to answer a set of potentially unanswerable questions. And Roach is looking for hard answers. She says at one point,
“There is a lesson here for both sides of the spirit divide, and that is that hasty assumptions serve no one. To make up one’s mind based on a simple summary of events – as believers and skeptics alike tend to do – does nothing toward the pursuit of solid answers” (210).
In her research, Roach is taking a serious look at a question (and a realm) that can’t be mapped or pinned down. As the book goes on, you find yourself yearning, as she does, for evidence. Her investigation ends with more questions than answers, but I think the strength of this book is that as it progresses, Roach becomes comfortable with the mystery of her subject. It becomes a book about how and why we come to believe in the afterlife, rather than a definitive guide to our destiny after death. As Roach says at the end of her book, “… maybe belief is more subtle. A leaning, not a knowing” (294).
This book is an adventure into uncharted territory. It is as unashamed as it is open-minded. I hope that someday I can learn to approach the world with the same optimistic rationality and open-minded good humor that Roach employs in her journalism.
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