Granted, it’s a logical progression but Mary Roach’s choice of book subjects does make a person wonder. Her first book was Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers. She’s now followed that with Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. Fortunately, the latter is told with the same light touch and playfulness as the former.
Roach truly is interested in the scientific and rational aspects of what happens after death. Her tone and writing style, though, make reading about an otherwise somber subject relatively enjoyable. Her approach is seen in the introduction, where she indicates the types of questions that led her on this quest:
What happens when we die? Does the light go 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?
What she proceeds to examine is a mix of the scientific and non-scientific and the serious and almost laughable from the world over. Roach herself admits that she’s engaged in a “random” exploration of the topic, “spirituality treated as crop science” as she describes it.
The range is seen in her discussion of spiritualists and mediums. This topic alone takes her and the reader from examining a piece of ectoplasm in the archives of the Cambridge University library that was allegedly emitted by a spiritualist in 1939 to laboratory tests of mediums at the University of Arizona to a “fundamentals of mediumship” class at the self-proclaimed “world’s foremost college for the advancement of spiritualism and psychic sciences” in Stansted, England.
Roach goes far beyond mediumship, though. Spook looks at projects that aim at having people die while on a scale. The purpose? To see if a weight loss occurs at the moment of death, perhaps indicating whether a soul or something else leaves the body at the time of death. She travels to India to accompany a philosophy professor who is trying to systematize investigation of claimed reincarnations. She ventures into a soundproof booth in Canada where tests are underway to see if electromagnetic fields are what enable people to see ghosts (or hallucinate them). She joins a tour group trying to record ghosts of the Donner Party in an exploration of electronic voice phenomena, voices that mysteriously show up on tape although not heard at the scene.
Roach makes clear from the outset and reminds throughout that she is in search of proof, not belief. Spook ultimately reaches no definitive conclusions about what happens when we die. That’s because, from the standpoint of proof as opposed to belief, there are none. Still, the search is not only an intriguing journey, her survey also impacts what she, and perhaps the reader, ultimately believes.
I believe that [mediums] believe, honestly and with conviction, that they are getting information from paranormal sources. It’s just a different interpretation of a set of facts.
Mary Roach, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife