Blum: Ghost Hunters

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Deborah Blum, Ghost Hunters : William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life after Death. New York : Penguin Press, 2006. 370 pages; includes bibliographical references and index.

Many years later, William James marveled at the ineffectiveness of such scientific strikes against the supernatural. "How often has 'Science' killed off all spook philosophy, laid ghosts and raps and 'telepathy' away underground as so much popular delusion?" he would wonder ironically. As James noted, the ghosts kept coming back, the visions yet glimmered, the voices yet sounded. No matter how many times scientists evoked mental illness, dreams, fantasy, and stupidity as explanations for bumps in the night, people kept reporting them as though they were real.

I picked up Deborah Blum’s Ghost Hunters. on a total whim. I was looking up some other book--I can’t remember which one--and suddenly this popped up on to my screen. It sounded intriguing, so I popped over to my library’s website and put a hold on it. As most of you know, though, I have quite a stack of library books asking for my attention, so I didn’t get around to actually opening it until three days ago.

And I found myself completely entranced.

The book is about a circle of Brits and Americans (mostly men, but there is one woman!) who in the last few decades of the nineteenth century decided to bring a scientific approach to the question of the afterlife. The most famous of those today is William James, one of the founders of psychology and brother to Henry (one of whose novels I’m listening to right now!). But there were also the creators of the British Society for Psychical Research: Henry and Nora Sidgwick (husband and wife), Edmund Gurney, and Frederic Myers. And the Australian Hodgson, who becomes the most dedicated researcher. It delves into everyone’s personal lives as well as their intellectual ones, which makes the book feel like a fascinating group biography as well. Since Blum is a marvelous author, though, she includes the larger pictures: the ongoing conflict between religion and science and the refusal by most scientists to even consider applying the scientific method to 'supernatural' questions.

I discovered by reading the jacket that Blum won the Pulitzer Prize, for her book The Monkey Wars, which might explain why the book opens with a brief discussion of Darwinism! However, the vast majority of it looks at the efforts of these men and woman to try to get their research taken seriously, to try to pin down anything concrete about the afterlife, and the various mediums they met with along the way.

As I already mentioned, Blum’s writing is wonderful. I’ve read quite a few science books since I’ve been blogging, many by science journalists (instead of actual scientists), and Blum has the best style of any I’ve read. There are no corny jokes here, or awkward moments of dry explanation. Instead, she really brought all of the people to life, and I felt as if I’d been able to pop into a time machine and visit with these late Victorians. When they struggled against the unexpected, unreasonable automatic rejection of their work by most scientists, I was right there with them.

Like Wallace before him, Crookes was naive about how his colleagues might see his paranormal investigations. He’d expected demands for replication, perhaps competition from those who wanted to conduct their own studies of [the medium]. He had anticipated criticism of the equipment he’d used, suggestions for better tests. He’d not expected to be slandered by anonymous report--or to see his friends slandered with him.

When they went to a sitting with one of the amateur mediums whose detailed knowledge was seemingly inexplicable or collected so many similar stories of ghostly visitations it defied probability, I marveled with them.

The man jolted upright in bed. It was four o’clock in the morning. Someone had just gripped his hand. The touch was as cold and thin as water. He exclaimed to his wife, startled by the feel of those chilly fingers. He caught a glimpse of a woman leaving; there’d been something about the way she moved, the set of her dark head, that had reminded him of his aunt. But the man and his wife were in Nottingham, and on this early June morning in 1880, the aunt was supposed to be on a steamer heading for the United States. He leapt up to check the front door on the house. It was on the chain. He returned, saying to his wife that he feared his aunt was dead. “You’re dreaming,” she replied. Her diagnosis was that he’d eaten too large a supper before going to bed. Two weeks later, they received a letter from his aunt’s solicitor. She had died at sea on the day that he’d felt that ice-water hand in the middle of a summer night.

When they had a moment of private grief, or joy, or weariness, I felt it too. The book spans several decades, covering the death of most of the principals. And as you might imagine in a history of afterlife exploration, when the various friends die, things get even more interesting!

While the history-being-brought-to-vivid-life thing was awesome, it’s not what made me fall in love with the book. That would be Blum’s attitude. There’s a true respect for these people and what they were trying to accomplish that simply rings true. Unlike a certain book I could mention that I loathed for its mocking, holier-than-thou attitude, Ghost Hunters doesn’t try to say that modern science always knows best. While Blum discusses the mediums that were exposed as frauds by the researchers, she also discusses the ones that weren’t. She shares the kind of stories that make you wonder, that don’t seem to have a 'rational' explanation outside of something supernatural, the ones that the researchers compiled in their study. And she leaves it up to you, the reader, to decide for yourself. At the same time, she’s not like "look! ghosts exist!" at all. I think her account was balanced and intelligent, and I appreciate an author willing to give the readership credit.

I’m not being very coherent, but I loved this book to pieces, and I think a lot of people will too. If you enjoy history, the Victorians, intellectuals (Nora spends her Egyptian vacation doing math problems with her brother-in-law, hehe), or the history of science (and scientific revolutions) you should read this book. If you don’t read a lot of nonfiction, but you’re looking for titles that read like fiction and still teach you something, you should read this book. If you read non-fiction all the time and are looking for a new favorite author, you should read this book. And of course, if you’re curious about those unexplained, goose bump-raising experiences, you’ll want to go get this right away.

Compassionate, intelligent, fascinating, Ghost Hunters is easily going to be on my top ten list this year. And considering it’s the 180th book I’ve read, that’s saying something.

-- Notes by EVA

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