Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach
Nonfiction; 311 pgs
First Sentence: My mother worked hard to instill faith in me.
Reason for Reading: This is my final selection for the Nonfiction Five Challenge (wrap up to follow). I was first introduced to Mary Roach through Reader’s Digest where her articles never failed to make me smile. I thoroughly enjoyed reading her first book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, and so eagerly looked forward to reading this, her second book.
Comments: I am a bit of a skeptic much like Mary Roach. I understand the concept of faith and certainly have my own ideas on the subject, but there is something comforting and solid in having actual proof of scientific evidence to hang my hat on. In researching and writing Spook, author Mary Roach sets out in search of scientific evidence of the afterlife. It is not so much a question of whether or not the afterlife exists but whether or not science has been able to prove its existence. If you are looking for a book about the cultural and religious aspects of the afterlife in all its connotations, this is not the book you are seeking.
One of the things I most like about Mary Roach is that she is a lay person. She is not an expert, and so her research tends to come from a more basic level, one that is easy to relate to. While I found it extremely refreshing in her previous book, Stiff, this time around it was not quite as endearing. I think in part that had something to do with the subject matter. Unlike researching and writing about what happens to dead bodies, discussion surrounding the afterlife is much more circumstantial. It is not an easy subject, especially from the scientific viewpoint, to wrap the mind around.
The book opens with research into reincarnation, specifically the research being done in India, comparing memories of young children who are believed to have been reincarnated to that of the family and friends of the deceased the child is believed to have been in the past life. I imagine the case studies the researchers have collected would make for interesting reading. (Aside: This particular study reminded me of an article I read recently about the Chinese government making the pronouncement that they would decide who would be the reincarnate of the Dali Lama. I imagine their definition of reincarnation in this case is quite different from that being studied in India, where there does not seem to be a choice in regards to who a person may become in a later life.)
From reincarnation, the author ventures into the question about the whereabouts and development of the soul from birth and on into life. She also discusses psychic abilities in relation to communication with the dead, ending with the scientific research into near death experiences, which is a subject I read quite a bit about earlier in my life.
In true Mary Roach fashion, the author goes off on the occasional tangent and sprinkles her discoveries with the expected humor. Although I did enjoy Spook, I do wish the author had taken the time to touch upon more of the cultural and religious aspects, despite that not being the intent of the book itself. I think it would have made for a fuller and more complete picture of the subject matter (not to mention a very long book--maybe not such a good idea after all). I do not think the outcome in Mary's thinking would have been any different, but it certainly would have been intriguing.
Favorite Part: I most enjoyed the look back in history at the beliefs and theories that were postulated about the soul. The ectoplasm stories in particular held a certain fascination for me. The lengths some people will go to . . .