Skip to content

Spook (thoughts)

August 11, 2007

You know when you’re super excited about a book? And then you start to read it, and a little voice in your head says, “this isn’t that good.” But you ignore the little voice, until it gets louder and louder. Finally, you read the last sentence with relief.

That’s pretty much what happened with Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. I bought it at B&N in their 3-for-2 summer deal. I’ve been wanting to read Stiff for awhile, but it wasn’t on the table, so I figured I’d take a book by the same author. It sounded interesting-scientific experiments regarding the afterlife.

And that topic still sounds interesting. Unfortunately, that’s not what Spook is really about. Of twelve chapters, three feature actual scientists. The other twelve are about various psychics, religious figures, or pseudoscientists. This is fine, except that the book’s subtitle explicit claims science. That’s what intrigued me; you never see books about experiments designed to test the existence of ghosts. I felt slightly betrayed.

Despite this, I still could have enjoyed the book. After all, a history of pseudoscience is bound to be amusing, as well as funny. But this leads me to the bigger problem of the book: Mary Roach’s sense of humour.

You know those professors who you really liked, but who made the corniest possible jokes in class? And then laughed? Well, imagine that professor telling those jokes in the most long-winded way possible. And, you have Roach’s many asides and footnotes. What Roach most needs is a ruthless editor.

The best way to show this is through examples, so here we go….
The following is a footnote on during the chapter entitled “How to Weigh a Soul.” First, I’m going to give the three sentences where the footnote asterik was.

Now let’s say there’s an organism in the box-a permecium or a wombat or John Tesh; it doesn’t matter. And that organism dies inside the box.* If the electro-magnetic detectors detect energy leaving the box, there should be a corresponding change in weight.

And here’s the footnote.

Credit for the original seal-a-soul-in-a-box experimental format must go to Frederick II, the thirteenth-century King of Sicily and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. In the diaries of the king’s sometime chronicler, a Franciscan monk Salimbene, there is a description of Frederick shutting up “a man alive in a cask until he died therein, wishing thereby to show that the soul perished utterly.” Though Frederick is to be credited for his precocious enthusiasm for scientific method, the cruelty of his experiments invariably outweighed their scientific merit. To wit, the time he “fed two men most excellently at dinner, one of whom he sent forewith to sleep, and the other to hunt; and that same evening he caused them to be disembowled in his presence, wishing to know which had digested the better” (The sleeper). At least that one makes some sense.(98)

See the problem? There is a certain macabre humour in this, but it has been smothered in Roach’s long-windedness. She also suffers from a ‘too much information’ syndrome. Take this footnote:

It’s possible that the history of creatively interpreted white noise dates as far back as the Oracle at Delphi, where the priestess sat above a crack in the temple floor, below which chould be heard the roiling waters of a spring. Dean Radin, senior scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, has posited that the white-noise-like sounds of the water may have brought on auditory hallucinations. (The more common theory holds that ethylene fumes issuing from the spot were sponsoring the woman’s altered states of mind. Ethylene-better known for making bananas ripe than for making priestesses bananas-can cause hallucinations in concentrated amounts.)(186)

The first part of that is interesting. But then she ruins it with the unneccessary stuff in parantheses. And then she makes the stuff in parantheses even bulkier by the information between the dashes. It’s just ridiculous. Roach is addicted to dashes and parantheses; she’s apparently forgotten that both of these punctuation marks are for extra information. A sampling.

The show implied that the music is so clear that if David Cassidy were to put his ear right up to your mouth-close to but not quite my sixth grade fantasy-he could name the song. (189)

Occam simply used it-frequently and “sharply” to quote The Encyclopaedia Britannica entry-so much so that ie became known as his razor. (237)

Maria told her ICU social worker-a woman whose parents did her the gross disservice of naming her Kimberly when her last name was Clark-that she had not only spent her time watching herself being worked on by the ER time, but had drifted out of the building and over the parking lot. (276)

What might have been cute a couple times occured so frequently that I just wanted to break out my red pen. To be fair to Roach, sometimes her humour works. I’ll share with you the part that made me laugh out loud:

The woman seated beside me is fiddling with a handheld meter of some sort. She has the instruction manual open. A headings says, “ELF RESEARCH IN THE 90s.” I like this woman, and I don’t want to think the things I’m now forced to think about her. I ask her if she has ever seen an elf.
She stares at me suspiciously, like she doesn’t need a Belfry Nat Detector; she can just see them flying around in there. “Nooo-o…Why, have you?”
I squint at the copy. “You can’t see, smell, or touch them,” it says, “but they are present in your everyday life.” I am working on the phrasing of my next question when her boyfriend leans forward. “E-L-F,” he says.” “Not ‘elf.'” (200)

Even this passage could have done without the fourth sentence.

I’m aware that this post sounds like nitpicking, but these forced humour asides and additions are a fundamental part of Roach’s writing style. Some might like it, but I simply became less and less interested in the topics. Topics that were inherently interesting. So, I just wish that Roach would accept that sometimes, perhaps most of the time, less is more. She needs to learn how to just stop.

And on that note, I’ll stop as well.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Heather permalink
    August 12, 2007 2:18 pm

    I have definitely had that experience of starting out enjoying a book and then becoming more and more dissatisfied with it (an execrable, ultimately misogynistic novel called “Cretaceous Sea”–one of only two one-star ratings I’ve ever given to a novel).

    I too tend to have issues with parentheses and dashes (using them too much, I mean, as you might have noticed already in this comment), and sometimes they work for me in a piece of writing. But it really does have to work as a quirky part of an author’s style, and I think most people (yes, I do include myself in this!) can’t really carry it off well enough to justify doing it. Particularly in pro writing.

    The other thing I noticed with many of the tidbits you quoted is that they seem rather unclear to me in places, such that I have difficulty understanding what’s happening.

  2. Eva permalink
    August 13, 2007 2:23 am

    Heather, I don’t mind parantheses and dashes in casual, blog-like writing. I too have a mild addiction to them. But formal writing calls for a different level. Only the super-cool authors can pull it off!

    The writing was kind of fuzzy re: what was happening, but it was a lot more clear in the bigger chapter than the passages I’ve pulled. Sometimes I got lost, usually when Roach went off on a tangent, but she was on the whole pretty good about keeping it down to earth.

  3. Nymeth permalink
    August 14, 2007 12:18 pm

    I’ve been meaning to read this book, but now I’m reluctant. I don’t have anything against books offering points of view that are not scientific, but, like you, I feel betrayed when I find that in a book that claims to be about science.

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: