July 28, 2008

Why Spook Bugged Me

I'm reading Mary Roach's Bonk, her new book about sex research, in between, oh, everything else. It's quite good, and I'm relieved.

I read her first two books, Stiff (about the treatment of human cadavers) and Spook (about the search for proof of an afterlife). Stiff was wonderful, but Spook left a bit to be desired. I wasn't sure whether it was sophomore slump, a rush to capitalize on the success of Stiff, or something else. After Bonk, I finally get it.

Roach's trick is to take her readers inside an alien culture, strip away taboos, and expose the humanity that's left. She acknowledges her own limited frame of reference, then uses humor, matter-of-fact reporting and sympathy to get beyond it.

This worked for Stiff, where she introduced us to people who treat the dead with respect but not fear. We got to know and understand morticians and researchers at the body farm. We saw the ups and downs of their jobs. These are scientists and technicians who are like you and me but without the squeamishness. Nice folks. Cool. Glad to meet them.

Then the same thing happened in Spook, only this time it was the ultra-credulous who got the treatment. They were still nice folks and all, but I could never shake the desire to shake them and ask why they weren't turning their talents to something useful. What I had mistaken in Stiff for Roach's respect for reason and rationality was really respect for her subjects.

Luckily, with Bonk, we're back on useful territory. The history of inquiry moves from interesting but bizarre belief to understanding based on reality. We're back in my world.

And I know now to check the subject before picking up Roach's next book. I'll probably still buy it, whatever the subject, but I'll know whether to expect something enjoyable, or just something interesting.

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