Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife

By Mary Roach

SpookRebecca has read a fair amount of Mary Roach, but this is my first book of hers, and I have to say, I really enjoyed it! I don’t often like nonfiction, but she has such a juvenile sense of humor about it all that I really appreciated! Basically if anything has even a distant relationship to genitals or farts or such, she’ll be sure to delve into it.

In the introduction, Roach writes, “Simply put, this is a book for people who would like very much to believe in a soul and in an afterlife for it to hang around in, but who have trouble accepting these things on faith.” And I’d say that describes me to a T! She covers reincarnation, séances, ghosts, and near-death experiences, among others, and it is all fascinating. I’m not sure that I can sell this book any better than including the opening to one of my favorite passages:

Is it possible to dress up like a ghost and fool people into thinking they’ve seen the real deal? Happily, there is published research to answer this question, research carried out at no lesser institution than Cambridge University. For six nights in the summer of 1959, members of the Cambridge University Society for Research in Parapsychology took turns dressing up in a white muslin sheet and walking around in a well-traversed field behind the King’s College campus. Occasionally they would raise their arms, as ghosts will do. Other members of the team hid in bushes to observe the reactions of passerby. Although some eighty people were judged to have been in a position to see the figure, not one reacted or even gave it a second glance. The researchers found this surprising, especially given that the small herd of cows that grazed the field did, unlike the pedestrians, show considerable interest, such that two or three at a time would follow along behind the “ghost.” To my acute disappointment, “An Experiment in Apparitional Observation and Findings,” published in the September 1959 Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, includes no photographs.

Roach goes through an enormous amount of archives, in order to bring us the juiciest bits. In fact, I think that’s why I like it so much – reading this felt like gossiping with a good friend. If I have one little quibble, sometimes Roach’s research takes her into realms that are a bit much for me. Rebecca warned against the vivisection chapter in Gulp, and I’m here to warn against the ectoplasm chapter in Spook. I did not know what rumination was before I read this, and I’m not super happy that I know now.

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

gulpGulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal
By Mary Roach
Read by Emily Woo Zeller

This was excellent, but…

That’s pretty much my review of this book. It was excellent—funny and informative—and yet, there are so many warnings necessary before I could possibly recommend this to anyone else.

I read Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers some years back and enjoyed it a lot. It was funny and educational and oddball and also kind of gross but mostly that just made me get all picky about what I want to have done with my body after I die. I had not expected adventures in the alimentary canal to be significantly grosser than a recounting of the things that can and do happen to bodies after death. Oh, how wrong I was! Gulp got incredibly gross, and I am now hyper conscious of my bowels. I can only hope that awareness disperses after I move on to another book.

Second: I have to warn about animal harm. So. Much. Animal. Harm! You know how people have learned about the digestive track over the centuries? Largely by doing really unpleasant things to animals. Do you know what vivisection is? If you don’t, then count your blessings and don’t ask.* If you do, well, if you read this book, you’ll know a lot more about it. The people at the dog food factory loved their dog taste-testers and treated them extremely well. I cling to the fact that there are people here who love their animals. Because all the other animals mentioned in this book came to gruesome ends.

Moving on, I was surprised about how Roach didn’t spend much time on the intestines. She started at scent and taste and swallowing, moved on to the stomach, and then dealt with digestive juices, but then moved on to the colon (and stayed there for a really long time) but I didn’t really think the small and large intestines got their fair share of time. On the other hand, this isn’t exactly intended as a textbook. Maybe she just couldn’t find the same number of stories—horrifying and hilarious—for that particular section of anatomy as she could for the rest.

Finally, while I listened to this in audiobook format, I think it probably works better read in a traditional book format. There were a fair number of footnotes that discussed tangential issues and it was occasionally difficult to track the divergence and subsequent return to the regular text.

So, if my various warnings haven’t put you off too much, then I do recommend this book. It is hilarious and I have learned things that I never would have expected.

* I first learned of vivisection from a book in which the bad guys did it and the good guy was Jack the Ripper. Let that give you some perspective.