Sunday, November 20, 2005

Spook: Book Review

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, by Mary Roach, is a fast moving, very funny book, though you probably wouldn't expect a book on what happens to our souls (or whatever makes up a person's personality) after death to be so engaging. Unless of course you've already read her previous bestseller - Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers - in which case you already know about Roach's ability to ferret out bizarre and strangely fascinating stories.

Each chapter of Spook reads well as a free standing essay. Her topics range from an account of a reincarnation investigation in India, a history of the discovery of sperm and "ensoulment", ectoplasm and how a talented medium can produce it from various bodily orifices, descriptions of historical & modern devices to measure various spiritual phenomena, to studies on near death experiences. I think my favorite chapters are the one on how EMFs (electromagnetic fields) affect human perception and can either produce hallucinations of ghostly presences, or (if you are a believer) make humans more sensitive to psychic emanations, and the chapter about infrasound, pipe organs, and ghosts, complete with a link* for you to test your reaction to an 18 Hertz tiger roar.

Spook is filled with digressions and asides**, some of which are far from the original topic, but are enormously entertaining. She is honest (and sometimes a bit snide) about her reactions to the various studies and the people she meets, and while that may turn some readers off, it made it more personal and readable for me. The only thing I really missed, which I realize I've now complained about in many of the books I've reviewed, was an index. It took me forever to track down the story about Tesla, Edison, and the electrocution of Topsy the elephant in 1903.

As one of Roach's interviewees notes, between the genuinely true and outright faking lies a wide middle ground of unconscious delusion. Roach includes many engrossing stories that are clearly in the latter two categories, and perhaps...maybe...a few that may belong in the true, or least presently unexplainable, group.

*Click on the speaker icon in the 5th paragraph down. For the best effect, turn your computer speaker WAY up. Be prepared to jump, even if you know it's coming.

**For more interesting tangents, see the recent interview with Roach at Powell's Books.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, thank you for letting me know she has a new book out! I simply loved "Stiff," and I imagine she brings the same droll, keenly observed viewpoint here. OK, this is on my Christmas gift list--my sis will love it. Hmmm, I might buy two, "by mistake." Gosh, that would be a bummer. :) --ypsidixit

laura p said...

coincidence--i just started reading it a few days ago---