This year I have read three of Mary Roach’s books: Packing for Mars (spoiler – it’s great), Bonk (also very good), and now Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers. It was… it was good. But it wasn’t great. Maybe because it was Roach’s first book (before this one she was mostly a freelance writer for publications like GQ, Vogue, and Reader’s Digest) or maybe this topic just made me see some of the weaknesses in Roach’s style. Let’s discuss!
While I was talking to Ale the other night about why this book only mostly worked for me, and I didn’t love it the way she had when she read it a few years ago, I landed on the idea that there were just too many asides, too many extraneous bits of nothing that took away from central thesis of her work: that there are any number of things that could happen to your body after you are done with it. Great! Tell me all the things. I love learning things, and I love having a bit of a laugh while I do. And that’s Roach’s signature style, humor with a bit of learning new things. But… we spent a lot of time not talking about that as much as talking about other things happening around what happens to your body. I didn’t care very much about those parts.
I did very much care about surgeons practicing techniques on severed heads, gross anatomy labs, and bodies being used as crash-test dummies to make cars safer for those of us who are still living, and the use of cadavers in weapons and ballistics research. Woohoo! I was even all about the chapter about historic grave robbing in order to provide cadavers for early anatomists. But there was too much extra in all of these chapters. Then there was the other thing: the gross out factor. Bear with me, I am not easily grossed out. I have no problem with wounds, poop, what have you. But, and this is such a weird complaint, I had a really hard time reading about the smells Roach describes. It’s a testament to her writing ability that she could turn my stomach by describing odors, but she did.
I still recommend this book if the topic interests you, while it is starting to show its age it is still full of fascinating information. I am now even surer that I will likely ask that my body be donated to science upon my eventual death. I have no interest in being cremated (I hate fire) and burial doesn’t sound that great either. But I could be useful, and that would be nice.
This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.