“What happens when we die? Does the light just 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?” In an attempt to find out, Mary Roach brings her tireless curiosity to bear on an array of contemporary and history soul-searchers: scientists, schemers, engineers, mediums, all trying to prove (or disprove) that life goes on after we die.
Along with my love for horror I’ve always had a (sometimes terrified) fascination with the paranormal. This has felt somewhat contradictory to my secular upbringing, but it’s something that I simply haven’t been able to help. I can’t help but find videos or written accounts of the strange, otherworldly, or unknown alluring. But lately I’ve taken a greater interest in considering accounts of the paranormal more closely. It’s easy enough to be broadly skeptical and give the subject no time of day, but when I hear stories of ectoplasm spilling from a medium’s mouth, communicating with the other side, or children remembering past lives I want a more thorough examination of these incidents that lays all details bare. This is where Spook by Mary Roach comes in, a book that works to scientifically consider various studies of the afterlife to see what, if any, proof has ever truly been found.
What helped make this book so compelling was that Roach approaches everything from the same standpoint as the reader. She just takes it a step further by investigating the evidence herself and reporting her findings and conclusions. This helped to make the amount of incoming information digestible, as it reads less like a researcher expounding their work. She’s a good stand-in for the fellow skeptic reader, while at the same time possessed of a clear voice and strong personality that makes for an engaging narrator. She frequently injects humour to help keep the material entertaining as well. At times I found this to be a little forced, but as I got further along I most often found it funny.
While I’m sure there are some obscure areas that may have been missed, Roach explores a wide gamut of subjects related to the afterlife, some I did not expect. This book does question the existence of ghosts, as I had expected, but deals with much more than the mere idea of apparitions. Starting chapters deal with possible beginnings of the spirit in human conception or reincarnation, diving into the work people currently do, or have done, to pinpoint at which point the soul enters a developing human. From there Roach moves on to people trying to measure the soul’s absence from a recently departed body, other methods people have used to try to identify or locate the soul, and eventually the varied ways people have supposedly convened with the spirits long after death. Chapters go into a great amount of detail, sharing the author’s more hands-on experiences in pursuit of the truth as well. I was impressed with how thorough they were while also managing to be so concise.
While skepticism, incredulity, and sarcasm abound, there is consistently a faint glimmer of the unknown in what she conveys to the reader. In confronting prominent figures who are misguided, misinformed, or too biased, she also strives to find the most credible sources she can and does succeed. They haven’t proven anything yet, but I appreciated the scientists and researchers she did consult that were not looking for easy answers, wanted to be as thorough as possible, and genuinely believed there can be more to the physical world than what we understand now, which could include a lasting human spirit. As much as I am a skeptic, the idea of a hereafter does appeal to me, and it’s a question I will always linger on from time to time.
If you’re looking for an accessible, scientific look at ghosts, the soul, the afterlife and more, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife is a great source to sate your desire. The book breaks down a lot of still-widely held beliefs and in great detail shows just how flawed they really are. At the same time Roach upholds a spark of hope and mystery; that just because these avenues are shown to be fruitless does not mean there isn’t something more to what we know about consciousness and what happens to who we are after we pass on. You just might get some good laughs along the way too.
My rating: 4 out of 5