Book review: Spook

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, Mary Roach’s second published book, is a whimsical tour of modern and historical investigations into whether human consciousness survives death.  It follows up on her previous book, Stiff: the curious lives of human cadavers, with further investigation of what happens when people die. This time around, the question is not about the fate of our earthly remains but instead whether that’s all of us that does remain. The two books are unified by the marginality of the research they describe, and the curiosity and persistence Roach shares with us in getting as close to the bottom of things as circumstances allow. After all,

 By definition, death is a destination with no return ticket. Clinically dead is not dead-dead. So how do we know the near-death experience isn’t a hallmark of dying, not death? What if several minutes down the line, the bright light dims and the euphoria fades and you’re just, well, dead?  We don’t know, says Greyson. ‘It’s possible it’s like going to the Paris airport and thinking you’ve seen France.’

Lively as it is, the book ends up a trifle disorganized.  It presents a peculiar mix of Duke scientists designing random image displays for operating room ceilings to test whether an out-of-body experience can be confirmed, with tourists wandering supposedly haunted areas with tape recorders, listening for the voices of the Donner party. The field is fractured. There are a lot of individuals out there looking for ghosts, the weight of the soul or proof of the persistence of consciousness, who trust their own methodologies but scorn others’. The book reflects this lack of communication and collaboration, juxtaposing historical skeptics’ efforts to discredit mediums with a visit to a school for psychics-in-training.  One gets the sense that for all our new technologies, very little progress has been made in the last hundred and fifty years toward either showing that an afterlife is real, or showing conclusively that it is not.

To be fair, the field of trying-to-find-out-whether-ghosts-exist is uncommonly peppered with false starts and short on the compelling positive results—though as a kind of compensation, the book is more full than average of cocktail party stories.

What’s more, there’s something about Roach’s work that captures the spirit of research. She isn’t always sure where she is headed, but she invites us along and lets us see the questions as they arise, the leads as they pan out (or not), and all of the side routes that make the work so interesting and maddening to do. The result is like a travelogue, a road trip with a delightfully witty companion. One could wish for more science books to follow this model.

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