Sunday, November 4, 2012
Published by: W.W. Norton and Company
Publication Date: 2005
Format: Paperback, 311 Pages
Mary Roach is taking a look into proof of an afterlife. Many numerous people have had experiences, but is there any scientific way to give these experiences the seal of approval? The idea of what happens to, for want of a better word, your soul, has captured imaginations for centuries. The hope that there is something more beyond this world we are currently living in is the basis of many belief systems. Can one prove that they have truly been reincarnated and does a cultural predisposition for this belief lead to more cases? Does the soul have a location in our body and when it leaves does the weight of the body change on an infinitesimal scale? Mediums in every form are discussed, as are the various revolting methods in which they fooled their public. Even more modern methods of telecommunicating with the dead are explored, from telegrams to computers, tape recorders to telephones. Mary Roach explores all the possibilities, and though this is a book that no answer can be found, at least not yet, there is a chance, Mary has to concede, that she believes that something exists, she's not sure what, but it's more than a denial, and that's something.
More than most people, at least I assume that spending lots of spare time reading about Spiritualism and how your soul was weighed in Ancient Egypt isn't par for the course for most people, going into this book I had a lot of foreknowledge, as well as my own personal thoughts of the afterlife. Firstly I'll state my own beliefs, in that, yes, I do believe in ghosts, because I've seen some and been scared shitless. As for the whole heaven, I think heaven is reincarnation, in that life is the most wonderful thing out there so heaven would be getting to live again. Also the fact that I have an unnatural fear of dust storms and I have no other explanation as to why they scar the shit out of me. Purgatory, yep, totally believe in it and think that it's like in Beetlejuice. I do agree with Mary's statement that your knowledge or beliefs are formed from those around you, and my Dad was a big teller of ghost stories, but being raised Catholic he had the heaven and hell dogma, whereas mine came from my own thoughts and conclusions.
So yeah, I have all my own baggage, on top of the fact that the whole Spiritualism craze is just fascinating to me and I have spent tons of time reading about Arthur Conan Doyle and Houdini and the Cottingley Fairies. Therefore, going in, I was expecting some new insight, some revelation, something more than an occasional laugh out loud moment. I will concede, there where laugh out loud moments, one in particular about a sheep, but that's just me and my love of sheep jokes. The truth might lie in the fact that I'm not a non-fiction reader and I think one of my problems is that I need some sort of narrative framework. I need this to be somehow bookended so that I don't feel like I'm reading little sound bites that only vaguely fit into the overall theme. I was hoping for, at the very least, some more background, some more depth. Roach sometimes assumes that people will know what she's talking about when there really needs to be some prior knowledge or facts given, she seems more interested in getting to the joke or the oddity or rapidly ending the chapter than shedding light. This makes the book jumpy to me. Why not some more cultural significance and history as to the search for the soul and how this played into our cultures instead of little stories about a few people she interviewed or researched. She seemed to have narrowed her focus too much so that the bigger picture was lost.
As I have said, people have always wondered about the afterlife, and she does hit the big bold headlines, past lives, Spiritualism, mediums, phone calls from the dead, yet she never seems to discuss the why. Why are people so obsessed with this. Why are we so determined to prove that there is more than this. A psychological grounding to the rise of Spiritualism should be conveyed in depth in my mind instead of a throw away line about The Great War's death toll leading to people looking for life beyond the veil. Instead she focuses on the gory details of ectoplasm, which I think might have scared me for life. There is just so much more that I was hoping to experience and instead, this was like a primer for someone who knew nothing about the various theories and research on the afterlife and just wanted to have fun facts or anecdotes for dinner parties. Perhaps I should have realized that the books popularity is because of it's accessibly versus a weightier discussion of the afterlife.
What really annoyed me though is that where Roach deigns to have a narrative, the book flows and comes together, and moves away from it's fact jumping nature that gives you names and humorous stories so fast that you don't care what is being said and you start to gloss over the names. Her discussion of actually going to Medium School was wonderful and way too short. In fact, the school itself could have acted as a framework for the other ideas and theories to flow through. All in all, it was an interesting book that just wasn't my cup of tea because I wanted something more, and also, sometimes Roach's attitude was too much for me when she showed a lack of respect. There's humor and than there's being rude and blowing someone off. I think Mary Roach didn't like Alison DuBois one little bit, and that stuck in my craw.