May 11th, 2010

rotting doll.

Review: Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife

by Mary Roach

From the back cover:
"What happens when we die?  Does the light just out and that's that - the million-year nap?  Or will some part of my personality, my me-ness, persist?  What will that feel like?  What will I do all day?  Is there a place to plug in my laptop?"  In an attempt to find out, Mary Roach brings her tireless curiosity to bear on an array of contemporary and historical soul-searchers: scientists, schemers, engineers, mediums, all trying to prove (or disprove) that life goes on after we die.

I really liked Mary Roach's Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. Mary Roach's casual, chatty style made reading about dying almost fun, and it was fascinating to learn about all the things we do with bodies besides chuck 'em in a box and bury them six feet under.  So I had high hopes for Spook.

The approach to each topic - including reincarnation, ectoplasm, weight of the soul, and communciation with the dead -  was very superficial.  For example, Roach's chapter on mediums focused a lot on the heyday of spiritualism in the 1920s and 1930s, and she devotes a lot of time to debunking their efforts.  This is fine and interesting.  But most reasonable people have already come to the conclusion that these seances were faked, and by devoting so much page space to these early-20th century spiritualists Roach spent very little time with modern mediums.  But the one incident she includes where she works with a medium - Allison Dubois, whose work inspired the TV series Medium - isn't very funny, and Roach rushes through her account dismissing everything, even though Dubois' reading mentions something curiously specific to Roach's family that practically begs further exploration.

I think this might actually have been my biggest problem with Roach's book; she seems like she's cherry-picking her topics based on maximum hilarity.  Her account of attending medium school is amusing, I'll admit, but it strays pretty far from 'science tackling the afterlife.'  She points out the weirdos in the classes, and declares that she learned nothing from the vague direction of the instructors...and that's it. 

In terms of a scientific approach, Roach doesn't offer a single bit of original research.    In fact, she repeatedly admits that she doesn't know much about the topics at hand.  When Dr. Nahum, a professor of medicine with degrees from Stanford and Yale attempts to explain his research, Roach repeatedly asks him to dumb his explanations down, and he's struggling to comply.  Given this, I'd think she'd refrain from pointing and giggling at her subjects, but no.  She never fails to force a joke.  Mary Roach's humor, which was so refreshing and fun in her previous book, got cranked up to maximum and really dominated the book.  She was snarky to the extreme.  In the chapter focused on reincarnation, Roach's Indian host treats her very well.  He offers her the use of his wife's saris after Roach complains she has nothing to wear, talks freely about his research, and shower her with gifts.    He is an outstanding host.  But in the book, Roach speaks of him with a condescension that is downright rude.

I'm not a scientific person, but I think it's downright offensive that this book was sold as a "science" book.  It's not.  It's closer to a travelogue, or a series of humor essays.  Roach's obvious bias against anything supernatural clouds the book's objectivity, and her conclusion is so vague and flippant that the book felt like a waste of time.  For a much more satisfying read on a similar topic, Will Storr vs. the Supernatural (which I reviewed in December of 2009) is an excellent alternative.  He may not be a 'science' writer, but he is respectful to the people he works with and truly tries to understand them instead of using them for the target practice of his sarcastic tongue.


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