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by David Pullar

15 Jun 2007


Spook: Adventures in the Afterlife  by Mary Roach W. W. Norton July 2007, 228 pages, £14.99

Spook: Adventures in the Afterlife
by Mary Roach
W. W. Norton
July 2007, 228 pages, £14.99

From the number of atheist polemics hitting the bookstands in recent months, you could be forgiven for thinking we are entering a new era of scepticism and rationality. Yet in spite of the arguments emanating from scientific and philosophical corners, millions of people worldwide continue to hold to religious and spiritual beliefs that seemingly defy reason.

Author of the bestselling Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and self-confessed sceptic Mary Roach has entered into the debate with a review of the scientific evidence for what happens to her stiffs after they pass away. In a highly entertaining journey through the creepy, the wacky and the downright deceitful, Roach tackles reincarnation, ectoplasm, ghosts and whether the human soul has a weight.

Except for the reincarnation chapter, most of the “afterlives” explored are from Western traditions, predominantly 19th century-style spiritualism. This is probably wise, because Roach’s writing sometimes veers into a kind of superior sneer at the sheer silliness of it all. While it’s funny to read, it could have left her open to accusations of cultural insensitivity. It is much simpler to stick to widely disregarded beliefs held by only a small number. This is also a weakness, however. A large percentage of believers in an afterlife belong to major religions such as Christianity and Islam, which are barely covered in Roach’s examination.

Strangely enough, despite the lack of any unambiguous evidence and her strong pre-disposition to unbelief, Roach ultimately finds some room for a possible afterlife. There is no light-bulb moment, no Damascus Road experience, but the conclusion of the book seems to leave open the possibility that there are more things in Heaven and Earth than were dreamt of in the author’s imaginings. Perhaps this is the small gap between reason and wonder that religious people have usually called “faith”.

by Mikita Brottman

9 Jun 2007


Let me begin with a disclaimer: when I expressed interest in reviewing this book, I wasn’t aware just how young were the “Young Artists” for whom this book is evidently intended. Niedzviecki, founder of the art zine Broken Pencil, is something of an indie guru, and I’d assumed this would be a book for the art college crowd about zines, blogs, websites, and other ventures in self-publishing, along the lines of Ellen Lupton’s fantastic D.I.Y: Design-It-Yourself (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007). In fact, however, it’s actually a book for young teens. Now, I don’t know any young teens, and it’s a long time since I’ve been one, but I’m going to give it a shot anyway, so please bear with me.

The Big Book of Pop Cultureby Hal NiedzvieckiAnnick PressApril 2007, 176 pages, $14.95

The Big Book of Pop Culture

by Hal Niedzviecki

Annick Press

April 2007, 176 pages, $14.95

The Big Book of Pop Culture may not be as glossy, as big (or as pricey) as similar books aimed at this age-group, and the examples might date pretty quickly (which is always the case with pop culture), but it’s packed full with projects, ideas, plans, and inspiring sidebar interviews with young people who did it themselves: the producers of zines, blogs, self-published books, magazines.

In fact, I wish I’d had a book like this when I was a kid. Not only is it handy sized, appealing to the eye, and neatly produced, but it’s also full of projects that look like they’d be great fun to try. Quick and easy ideas, like keeping a family journal or writing fictional stories about your problems, are designed to help emerging artists get ready to tackle more ambitious works, and Niedzviecki is full of encouraging advice about what to expect, how to get things done, and how to avoid feeling disheartened when your ideas don’t work out as planned. Once these easy projects have been mastered, there are lots of suggestions about how young artists can use the tools of modern media to make popular culture of their own, in the form of print (self-publishing zines, comics, and books), video (making movies and shows), CDs (creating original music), or online (blogs and webzines).

Significantly, The Big Book of Pop Culture isn’t just about how kids can make culture of their own, it’s about teaching them to recognize mainstream pop culture, and to understand where it comes from and how it circulates. Niedzviecki has a strong and clear message here, and it’s a message about the corporate system and how it works to limit the kind of narratives kids tell about themselves and their experiences. By explaining to young adults how power works, how popular culture emerges, and how it has a tendency to co-opt independent ventures, Niedzviecki suggests ways for kids to think about models of success and self-expression that are different from those espoused by the mainstream media. This, ideally, will help them to create new communities and more personal kinds of grassroots-level cultural expression, which really do have the potential to transform our future, whatever age we might be.

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