Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach

T. G. LaFredo
Student, MFA

An alternate title for Mary Roach’s book could have been Spooky Science: An ADD Inquiry. The author drops in on Hindu reincarnation long enough to have some fun with it. She takes a whack at near-death experiences. She tells of old-time researchers, possessed men who hacked up cadavers in search of actual, physical souls. They figured there had to be a lump or a bone in there somewhere.

We’re off to quite a start here, no?

Roach is a science writer and a humorist, though she often puts the humor first. That’s not a criticism per se. There are plenty of serious works on life-and-death matters, whether their bent is science or religion. Spook contributes to that canon to the same extent that, say, Bill Maher contributes to serious political discourse.

Is there such a thing as “serious political discourse”?
Ghosts in Mexican culture, Wikipedia
“Death in Space,” Mary Roach, Boing Boing

Spook blends a significant amount of research with a strong sense of adventure. Roach mixes facts and factoids with diversions, excursions, and non sequiturs. It’s all delivered with humor and irreverence. The book is vacuous fun, but in a good way. It’s the valedictorian’s biology paper after the class clown has gotten hold of it. But in a good way.

Roach does have an ear for humor, but that’s not to say she has perfect pitch. Her use of repetition, for example, is just grating. In her commentary on one fringe researcher, she weighs whether or not he is “a nutter.” That sounds a bit affected for an American, but OK. It’s a throwaway crack, and we let it go. Then we see that she writes “nutter” five times in a page and a half. We can’t let it go any longer. It’s just not funny.

Fortunately she has more hits than misses, and comments she makes in passing are funnier than the ones many writers develop and call back for pages. Speaking of science writer Carl Zimmer, she says, “The guy is smarter than anyone I know. If you were to open up his head, his brain would burst out like an airbag.”

Not bad. But she should have gone with “burst out like Jiffy Pop.” It has a little more punch, and there’s a product-placement opportunity.
Roach’s jokes are facile at times, but it is fun to watch her setting up for another round of scared-cow tipping. She herds them out and knocks them over. Someone somewhere is offended, and that is for the best.

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