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It's not hard to understand the vogue for spiritualism that developed in the late 19th century. With religion under serious challenge from science, the afterlife--which religion affirmed and science scoffed at--became a subject of nervous fascination. Respectable people held parlor séances. Celebrity spiritualists like D.D. Home even made house calls. In 1869 three witnesses in a London residence reported that Home levitated, floated out a window and drifted back in through the window of another room.

It was all spine-tingling fun. But was any of it real? A handful of scientists and scholars brave enough to risk their reputation entered the field to find out. In her fascinating new history, Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death (Penguin; 370 pages), Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer prizewinning science reporter, tells the story of their decades-long effort to establish whether supernatural forces were more than sideshow illusions. They never came to firm conclusions, but their struggle to connect the dots makes for a captivating and even poignant tale.

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