The best-selling author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers now trains her considerable wit and curiosity on the human soul.
What happens when we die? Does the light just go out and that's thatthe 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 lap-top?" In an attempt to find out, Mary Roach brings her tireless curiosity to bear on an array of contemporary and historical soul-searchers: scientists, schemers, engineers, mediums, all trying to prove (or disprove) that life goes on after we die. She begins the journey in rural India with a reincarnation researcher and ends up in a University of Virginia operating room where cardiologists have installed equipment near the ceiling to study out-of-body near-death experiences. Along the way, she enrolls in an English medium school, gets electromagnetically haunted at a university in Ontario, and visits a Duke University professor with a plan to weigh the consciousness of a leech. Her historical wanderings unearth soul-seeking philosophers who rummaged through cadavers and calves' heads, a North Carolina lawsuit that established legal precedence for ghosts, and the last surviving sample of "ectoplasm" in a Cambridge University archive.
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