Mary Roach,
Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife
(W.W. Norton, 2005)

Mary Roach has delivered another bound-to-be-bestselling piece of nonfiction about a curious subject. Last time it was cadavers; this time she tackles the afterlife.

Unlike her comprehensive and eye-opening research done in Stiff, however, the material in Spook comes across very unevenly.

The early chapter on reincarnation in India (where reincarnation is a part of the religious culture) is a fascinating bit of journalism, executed perfectly with a healthy amount of skepticism balanced with acceptance, and it makes a great start to the book. For the next few chapters, though, Roach loses focus.

The book's subtitle really could be "a look at dubious science through the ages." We get scientists learning how eggs and sperm interact, the search for the soul in various glands, organs and bones of the body, early dissection practices and beliefs, experiments trying to find the weight of the soul, photographers capturing halos and auras, and a tediously long chapter on ectoplasm excreted by charlatan mediums in the early 1900s.

A lot of modern afterlife science was left out. I would have enjoyed more interviews with contemporary scientists and mediums, and less on the oddball science dating back to Greek times. If you are trying to get a look at the science of the afterlife now, this isn't the place.

My complaints on the subject matter aside, Roach does make the reading a fun journey. I love her wit and conversational tone. Her footnotes are fabulous! On the subjects she does address, her research is exhaustive.

by Jessica Lux-Baumann
10 June 2006

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