In 2003, journalist Mary Roach scored a bestseller with a book on an unlikely topic: the uses for the human corpses. Beyond simple burial and without a “CSI” slant, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers explored the more esoteric aspects of post-death. It made at least one reader rethink her plans for when this life is done. (If I can’t get my corpse into munitions testing, being an organ donor will do…)
Late last year, Roach’s highly-anticipated second book, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, was published. Spook covers a different question related to “what happens after we die.” Do we have a soul? Religious faith can easily answer that question for many, but Mary Roach is after what measures the scientific community has taken to prove the existence of the soul.
She begins in India investigating how cases of reincarnation are documented. Throughout the book, Roach wants to believe that the soul exists, but she approaches her subject matter with a healthy dose of skepticism. She asks the obvious questions that are sometimes overlooked by hardcore skeptics and glossed over by those who want only to convince. In the case of reincarnation stories, Roach looks at the culture as well as the anecdotes before making any assumptions.
After present-day India, Spook takes on the historical search for the soul ranging from Duncan Macdougall’s attempts to weight the soul in 1901 to various forms of mediumship. Indeed, a good portion of this book is dedicated to mediums and the efforts to prove and debunk them. For a surface history of the subject, Spook is a good reference. Roach herself attends a “Fundimentals of Mediumship” seminar. It is her hands-on approach to the subject matters of both Stiff and Spook that puts Mary Roach a cut above many non-fiction writers. Her humor shines through when topics become incongruous and extraordinary, and her footnotes read like inside jokes that may be referred to later in the text. Roach isn’t afraid to amuse as well as educate.
My only objection, and it borders on pet peeve, is the billing of “science” in the book’s subtitle. Very little of what Roach presents is in any way scientific. To her credit, she acknowledges this in a sidewise manner. There haven’t been many hard science experiments. It’s possible that if the soul exists, it will be a long while before current science has the tools to collect any applicable data. The absence of science is strongly felt in the book, and it would have been nice to have a more definitive statement concerning that absence.
From a faith perspective, Roach slides easily around the issue. Of course, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife offers no absolute answers. And Mary Roach is happy to leave it at that. Her object wasn’t to write a book proving or disproving the soul, but to examine what methods have been used in the search thus far. She achieves that purpose in spades with style and humor. And it leaves a reader like me wondering just where Mary Roach will be going next.