Spook

In her first book, Stiff, Mary Roach explored the secret life of corpses in a fun, slightly irreverent, and completely fascinating way. In Spook, her second book, she now tackles the afterlife, from reincarnation to soul-weighing, with equally mesmerizing results. Roach is a skeptic who is responsible enough to check her strongest objections—but not her sense of humor—at the door; she gamely plays along with mediums and other spiritualists even though it is clear that she is not predisposed to accept their methods. She wisely points out where their science is shaky, but is gracious enough to admit when they might be right. Thus her book, for all its snarky asides and skeptical posturing, is a relatively even-handed investigation into the afterlife from a scientific perspective.

From the start, Roach is intent on letting her readers know what she is all about. She is not persuaded by ghost stories or titillating anecdotes of mysterious occurrences. She is interested in facts, hard evidence, information that is not influenced by emotion or spurred by gossip. In that, ahem, spirit, Spook treats claims of reincarnation, ghostly apparitions, and communications with the dead as hearsay that must be proven true—or false—through research and experiments. Roach sets about doing this by meeting, when possible, with the people whose claims she is investigating. Despite the breezy attitude her writing might suggest, Roach is very, very thorough. This thoroughness takes her all over the world, from here in the United States to England, and even India. Along the way, she enrolls in medium school, and voluntarily subjects herself to electromagnetic fields in an attempt to see whether they can cause her to perceive (or hallucinate) ghosts.

Other reviewers have described Roach’s books as being sort of scientific travelogues, and no doubt this quality will be a draw or a disappointment, depending on the reader. It certainly lends Spook a light-hearted air, one that may suit neophytes just fine, but could prove irksome to afterlife enthusiasts. Indeed, one’s reaction to the first few pages is a good indication of how well he or she will like the book in total—Spook is as much an expression of Roach’s personality as it is a work of research. Roach tends to favor the threads that interest her over those that will form a more comprehensive study; the result is something more akin to a really fascinating dinner conversation than a college course. Still, the information is there, and for someone looking to expand their knowledge in the most painless way possible, Spook is a great choice. While Roach is certainly not an overly credulous guide, she still reassures her readers that it’s okay to believe. It’s okay to accept something that can’t be proven—because, hey, in almost 300 pages (and a 12-page bibliography!) it also couldn’t be disproven. And, as she concludes, it’s just more fun that way.

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