Shortcut #54: Ghost Hunters

Having loved The Poisoner’s Handbook, I made it my mission to seek out other books by Deborah Blum and read them.

I know you weren’t expecting that.  I bet you expected me to say eat them or enshrine them or take them out for coffee.  But that’s not what you do with books.  They aren’t like that, and they’ll be very insulted if you insinuate otherwise.

But were here today not to talk about how to treat books (i.e., well) but to talk about

Shortcut #54: Deborah Blum’s Ghost Hunters

and how it is an amazing read.  Granted, having now read two of Blum’s books I might be a bit biased, but yes this book is an amazing read.

And, yes, I admit I was drawn to the book partly because of what I’d read about William Crookes and his attempts to use technology to prove the existence of ghosts and the afterlife, the newfangled contraptions of television and radio, because they are so sensitive to waves in the air, hoped to be conduits for our ephemeral selves that survive our death.  And because of Blum’s excellent writing, of course.

Blum was essentially trained as a science writer.  Her books are rich with the details of discovery and invention and show a deep respect for and understanding of the underpinnings of science.  Her books are driven by the desire to understand herself what it is she’s writing about.  These aren’t textbooks – though each of her books is filled with information explained beautifully – they are questions that Blum doesn’t even necessarily hope to answer, but to explore.

What struck me most about reading Ghost Hunters is that it is essentially a story of failure.  Compare this with The Poisoner’s Handbook which is, at its heart, a story of success where science triumphs over poison and its users, where those who struggle to make the world a better place triumph over the odds.  Though every life is a tragedy – we die, after all – the heroes of The Poisoner’s Handbook manage to become heroes.

Ghost Hunters, on the other hand, is filled with the struggle of men and women who strive to understand the mysterious and are ridiculed and reviled for their efforts.  William James and his fellows are all respected academics and scientists, their work outside of “psychical research” applauded.

But this book is a record of their defeat: at getting the field of psychical research taken seriously; of discovering positive proof of what happens to us when we die; of verifying the existence of real psychic phenomena, whether communication with spirits or of telepathy or of dowsing rods.  The careers of those involved in trying to bring scientific methods to bear on the supernatural are attacked by those in the scientific community who refuse to even consider that there might be truth to what seems scientifically inexplicable.  Some of those careers are destroyed.  Some of those lives are destroyed.  And, in the end, there is no proof, as any proof which appears (such as evidence through mediums that several of the researchers who died are communicating from, well, whatever is after death) is still not absolute proof.

(If God came down to say that, yes, s/he did in fact exist, that still wouldn’t really be proof.  A physical appearance would spawn more questions than it would answer.  The only real proof of religion is faith, which is personal, and which isn’t really proof at all.)

And though I posit Ghost Hunters as a story of failure, it is just as much a story of faith, both in the mysteriousness of the universe and in the ability of science to elucidate those mysteries.

Ghost Hunters is slower than The Poisoner’s Handbook, but that book is as much a history of poison as it is the story of the men who strove to combat poisons (and, also, it has a kick-ass formal conceit, each chapter named for and centering around a different poison, even as each chapter moves us chronologically forward).

Blum’s Ghost Hunters is a beautiful story of people striving to understand what may not be able to be understood.  The failures of William James and William Crookes and the rest are inspiring because they don’t let the failures daunt them.  And, as Blum points out, there’s no real reason that they should.  Even though they fail to convince the scientific establishment, they find enough evidence of the supernatural to create doubt.  And doubt is the essence of faith.

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2 Responses to Shortcut #54: Ghost Hunters

  1. Brendan says:

    Have you read any Mary Roach? Your discussion of Blum’s work reminds me of her books about scientific fields (STIFF, about corpses, BONK, about sex, and SPOOK, about ghosts). They’re all pretty great.

  2. Andrew says:

    I haven’t read her, though I remember hearing about Stiff when it came out and really wanting to read it. Roach is now on my short list of books to buy from stores, all because of you. I hope you’re happy!

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