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Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife Hardcover – September 17, 2005

3.6 out of 5 stars 319 customer reviews

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If author Mary Roach was a college professor, she'd have a zero drop-out rate. That's because when Roach tackles a subject--like the posthumous human body in her previous bestseller, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, or the soul in the winning Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife--she charges forth with such zeal, humor, and ingenuity that her students (er, readers) feel like they're witnessing the most interesting thing on Earth. Who the heck would skip that? As Roach informs us in her introduction, "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. It's a giggly, random, utterly earthbound assault on our most ponderous unanswered question." Talk about truth in advertising. With that, Roach grabs us by the wrist and hauls butt to India, England, and various points in between in search of human spiritual ephemera, consulting an earnest bunch of scientists, mystics, psychics, and kooks along the way. It's a heck of a journey and Roach, with one eyebrow mischievously cocked, is a fantastically entertaining tour guide, at once respectful and hilarious, dubious yet probing. And brother, does she bring the facts. Indeed, Spook's myriad footnotes are nearly as riveting as the principal text. To wit: "In reality, an X-ray of the head could not show the brain, because the skull blocks the rays. What appeared to be an X-ray of the folds and convolutions of a human brain inside a skull--an image circulated widely in 1896--was in fact an X-ray of artfully arranged cat intestines." Or this: "Medical treatises were eminently more readable in Sanctorius's day. Medicina statica delved fearlessly into subjects of unprecedented medical eccentricity: 'Cucumbers, how prejudicial,' and the tantalizing 'Leaping, its consequences.' There's even a full-page, near-infomercial-quality plug for something called the Flesh-Brush." While rigid students of theology might take exception to Roach's conclusions (namely, we're just a bag of bones killing time before donning a soil blanket) it's hard to imagine anyone not enjoying this impressively researched and immensely readable book. And since, as Roach suggests, each of us has only one go-round, we might as well waste downtime with something thoroughly fun. --Kim Hughes

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Roach made an exceptional debut two years ago with Stiff—it might seem a hard act to follow. Yet she has done it again: after her study of what becomes of our mortal coil after death, she now presents an equally smart, quirky, hilarious look at whether there is a soul that survives our physical demise. Roach perfectly balances her skepticism and her boundless curiosity with a sincere desire to know. She ranges into the oddest nooks and crannies of both science and belief (and scientists who believe), regaling the reader with tales of Duncan Macdougall, a respected surgeon who weighed consumptives at their moment of death to see if the escaping soul could be measured in ounces, and of female mediums who, during séances, extruded a substance called ectoplasm from their private parts (she even examines a piece of alleged ectoplasm archived at Cambridge University). She goes to school to learn to be a medium, subjects her brain to electromagnetic waves to see if they induce the experience of seeing ghosts and joins a group trying to record sounds made by the spirits of the Donner party. The text is littered with footnotes: tangential but delicious tidbits that Roach clearly couldn't bear to leave out. She is an original who can enliven any subject with wit, keen reporting and a sly intelligence.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 311 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (September 17, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393059626
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393059625
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1.2 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (319 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #373,040 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Wayne Klein HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on February 11, 2006
Format: Hardcover
People frequently confuse a breezy style, humor and ability to entertain with being superficial. While Mary Roach's latest book isn't quite as compelling as "Stiff" it's an enjoyable journey one step beyond. When Roach is serious (which pops up between very funny quips)she asks some important questions about the afterlife, our perception of it, ghosts and reincarnation. Perhaps it's the subtitle that disappoints people but having read "Stiff" I knew what to expect. If you come to this book ignoring the subtitle (this skeptical humorist tackles the afterlife and science although more about that later with a sense of humor but doesn't quantify the afterlife with science herself).

Roach asks some penetrating questions with humor. For example, she discusses an author that discusses reincarnation, birthmarks and how a pregnant woman can see the corpse of someone. The soul of the slain man turns up in her child. Also, she discusses a pretty creative idea--emotional imprinting from an event that can leave birthmarks on the skin of the unborn creating a duplicate of a birthmark from the person whose soul has flown into the unborn child. She goes on a journey to investigate a family that claims their child has memories from a previous life and while going as an unbiased observer using humor and logic to deflate some of these unusual claims.

Yet she's always hopeful. She relates the story of a computer that is used for near death experiences. She discusses Professor Bruce Greyson's experiment in near death experiences using a computer with images that can only be seen if you were hovering below the ceiling. Patients that have had defibrillators put in have their hearts stopped to see if their defibrillators are working (they should restart the patient's heart).
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Format: Hardcover
I can see where Ms. Roach probably found herself a bit cornered while exploring the subject of life after death. First, she doesn't want to turn this book into a sprawling tome that explores the meaning of human existence. She also doesn't want to go down the long road of exploring every spiritual quest ever taken on by humanity. Then there are considerations regarding strongly held religious feelings; you don't want to step on the wrong toes. So, I think Ms. Roach took the right approach to the book in exploring a few areas of possible interest, looking at them as objectively as possible and seeing if anything raises an eyebrow.

So, the shortcomings of "Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife" may not be so much the fault of the author. If you've ever watched a Bigfoot documentary, you know that you're going to be disappointed if you expect some hunter to emerge from the woods with an eight foot tall ape-man on a leash. Also, you know that the blurry footage is a guy in a gorilla suit, no matter how much you'd like to believe otherwise. These documentaries always jazz up the footage with a little editing and some scary music. That's because simply showing how unrealistic it is to believe in Bigfoot after all this time doesn't make for entertaining viewing. They're taking advantage of us because we want to be taken advantage of, just a little.

Mary Roach respects us more than that and gives us what she can. Unfortunately, it doesn't make for very entertaining reading. The one thing that was really missing for me was that feeling of "Aha!". I understood that Ms. Roach couldn't take on everything regarding the subject but I wished it had been a little wider in scope.
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Format: Hardcover
If you're tuned in to her boisterous, quirky sense of humor, you'll find Mary Roach's book will take you on a sprightly voyage around the earthly borders of the afterlife. Don't expect any serious examination of whether there is or can be any real evidence of something beyond those borders, and you'll enjoy the excursion.

Building on the success of _Stiff_, her well-received survey on the world of corpses, our author advanced to the obvious next stage. She set out to write a book about secular investigations into the hereafter, beginning from a state of utter ignorance and friendly skepticism. She lets us look over her shoulder as she pokes around rather randomly into reincarnation research in India, the vaginal and gastric origins of ectoplasm, the accuracy of industrial scales used to weigh the soul, near death experiences, tape recordings of the long-dead in Donner Pass, and testimony from a ghost once allowed into evidence by a North Carolina court. She has a great deal of fun, much of it gossipy, some of it delightedly gross. The list of eminent men and women who have tried to cage and measure spirits is long. (I had no idea that Alexander Graham Bell's Mr. Watson was a devotee of spirit voices plucked from the ether.)

Ms Roach is game for pretty much anything, enrolling for example in a school for mediums. Skepticism wins almost every round, though never too decisively, which might spoil the party. The most interesting research is into possible correlations between hauntings and (1) infrasound or (2) EMF, each of which can induce a sense of uncanniness in a certain percentage of the population.

In sum, you will learn nothing substantial from the book, but it's not intended to resolve any serious questions. It's an entertaining, anecdote packed ramble through some of the fringe science community's haunted attics, under the aegis of a tour guide whose chatty, brassy style will turn off some tourists and enchant many others.
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