Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Redux #27 - "Spook" by Mary Roach

I enjoyed Stiff and Bonk by Mary Roach, so I knew I would be getting around to reading Spook (2005) at some point. I waited awhile before reading Spook because I don't have much interest in ghosts. Apparently, the way my brain is wired excludes belief in such things as spirits, ghosts, and religion. I hear all these far-fetched stories from all over the world and they are nothing more than ridiculous to me. I don't pretend to know what happens to us when we die, or that I understand the complexities of the universe, but I'd rather have no explanation than believe in a fairy tale. As reassuring as it would be to believe that there's something even better after this life, my current assumption is that we simply cease to be. I could be convinced otherwise, but I'm not sure what that would take.

And this was my problem with Spook, my least favorite by far of all of Roach's books. Roach's writing style didn't change much, so my dislike stems almost entirely from the subject matter. My lack of interest and patience in discussing ghosts led to a lot of the frustration and annoyance I felt while reading Spook. I first thought that Roach would be a good companion in discussing ghost stories since she's such a fan of science, but I think I'm even more of a skeptic than her--or at least her book would have been too short if she really let her skepticism go. I would have been more interested in a debunking book.

I think another aspect of the frustration I felt is that I knew it wasn't leading to anything. Roach discusses some anecdotal history of scientists, spiritualists, and psychics looking for the soul, looking for ghosts, and talking with the dead. There were some interesting historical stories, but there wasn't enough depth to any of them to really grab my interest. At the same time, even as the current stories were often more compelling, we still don't have any idea what happens to us when we die and we're not going to find out. At least with Stiff and Bonk I learned some interesting stuff about sex and death. But with Spook, I already knew all those experiments led to nothing, and we still have no idea what happens to us when we die. But I'm not to saying there wasn't anything interesting in this book. I enjoyed the chapters on the sound waves and the experiment with the computer and near-death experiences, but on the whole I was disappointed.

Instead of glossing over a bunch of anecdotal stories, I would have preferred that Roach delve a little deeper, especially with the topic of the afterlife. (My pet peeve in this book quickly became Roach's lists of what she found when she googled a name or word.) I would have been really interested in knowing if there are significant psychological differences between people who believe in ghosts/afterlife/etc. and those who don't. I saw a study on identical twins, and they are almost always also identical in whether they are religious or not--even when raised apart. I also wonder about how this "soul" works. What is our soul? What about those who have Alzheimer's, dimentia, or head injuries and who have basically already lost their personalities, or what we might consider an important part of their souls. Do they go into the afterlife with the soul they died with (in which case suicide at a younger, healthier age might be a good idea, especially if the afterlife is eternal) or do you get to choose the age and condition of your soul in the afterlife?

Spook wasn't my favorite book. It wasn't entertaining or educational enough for me to really enjoy, but I still like Roach and hope that she picks a really interesting topic for her next book.

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