Ben’s Review: “Spook” by Mary Roach

I am not a scientist. I took a geology class once and thought it was neat, and I never bothered with AP Biology in high school because books were cooler and less intimidating. Mary Roach is my kind of science writer, in that she’s not a scientist. Roach writes nonfiction that attempts to bring scientific research down to the level of the non-academic enthusiast. Spook Roach’s second book, investigates claims of the human soul continuing after death. In other words, Mary Roach is trying to find out if ghosts are real. Spook‘s interesting premise and central question carried me through the book, but near the end my interest was flagging. Nonetheless, Spook remained an entertaining, if a little predictable, read.

The most obvious component to the charm of Roach’s work is the author’s adopted persona. Roach approaches her material as a self-described amateur, someone who is willing to do their homework, but also one who understand that there are limits to her own understanding. Her self-deprication and sarcastic wit was charming in the first pages, but by the end of the book I was annoyed with her, ready to be done. To be clear, Spook is not a serious work of scholarship, nor does it have any real aspirations to be. This is meant to be accessible, interesting, and fun. But, for me, Roach’s persona got in the way of my interest in the material.

Around the midway point, I started to notice a pattern. Roach’s chapters almost always center on interesting stories about paranormal inquiry. She discusses actual academic case studies on reincarnation, a man who tried to weigh the human soul, and the many grotesque applications of ectoplasm during spiritualist seances. These sections of the book are engaging if for nothing more than their profound weirdness. But when Roach attempts to discuss current research, the drive of the book wanes. Many chapters follow a predictable pattern. The author would relay an interesting story, introduce us to researchers who are trying to determine the validity of the stories, explain their research methods, and then conclude by saying that the results are inconclusive. Perhaps this is the fault of the subject matter, but there are no answers in Spook, no conclusions, not really any interesting leads. The chapters describe dead end after dead end.

At the end of the book, Roach grapples with the issue of scientific evidence versus personal faith. Roach foregrounds her own struggle with religious faith and her almost childish desire to believe in things like ghosts. This was one of the strongest parts of the book. Roach (smartly, I think) makes the point that almost everyone has a point at which evidence no longer can dissuade us from a belief. But, as a (sort of) scientist, she understands that any conclusion based on faith will be ultimately flawed, but perhaps more palatable.

In the end, Roach questions the utility of using science to back up a belief at all. The trouble is, the book that preceded that revelation did not back that conclusion up, which, I guess, was sort of the point. Still, I was left wondering why someone who seemed to have already made up her mind about her personal belief in the afterlife spent to much time stacking up evidence that showed that it probably does not exist. There is a paradox at the center of Roach’s book, one that I’m not quite sure she totally earns or owns.

Spook gets three pieces of lasagna out of five.

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