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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

What I'm reading (#16)

Knowing my interest in all things paranormal, a friend of mine recently gave me a copy of Christine Wicker's Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead, about the village (not so far away from where I live, actually) that is completely populated by Spiritualists.  Founded 120 years ago, it is the longest continuously occupied Spiritualist community in the United States, and is the home to dozens of self-styled mediums.

As anyone who follows my other blog, Skeptophilia, knows, writing about the paranormal when you're a skeptic yourself can put you on a tightrope between sounding credulous and sounding scornful.  I don't always walk that line so skillfully myself -- I have a regrettable tendency toward scorn -- but Wicker does an admirable job of presenting the mediums she interviews as interesting, sane humans, not dupes nor charlatans nor loons.  In the interviews she presents here, she does her very best to be fair both to the people into whose homes she was welcomed, and to the general principles of skepticism.

Interestingly, she is confronted over and over with the basic problem that most of us skeptics have with the paranormal; that it's unverifiable.  Like religion, evidence only gets you so far (in my opinion, not very far at all, actually), and after that, it becomes a matter of faith.  So if you don't have the faith to begin with, it becomes a frustrating matter of pulling yourself up by your own shoelaces -- which Wicker ultimately has to admit doesn't work for her.

So if you're hoping that reading Lily Dale will convince you of the truth of the afterlife, you'll come away disappointed.  Wicker meets a lot of faith-driven Spritualists in the little village -- and more than a few outright hoaxers.  But as an even-handed look at a community whose raison d'ĂȘtre is communicating with the spirits of the dead, it ranks right up there with Mary Roach's Spook as a thoughtful and entertaining read.

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