When Mary Roach was researching her book on human cadavers, she attended a seminar where plastic surgeons practiced techniques on severed human heads. She also visited a body farm in Tennessee to see remains in various states of decay. And she stood at an operating table to witness an organ harvest from a brain-dead patient whose heart was still beating.

While doing all these things, Roach simply followed her curiosity as it led her into some extraordinary places.

The author came to Pullman this fall in conjunction with the selection of her bestseller Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers for Washington State University’s Common Reading Program. All 3,400 freshmen had been handed the book in hopes that they would read it and take part in a campus-wide conversation.

Stiff was the very first book the freshmen received as college students. That’s quite an honor, says Roach, though she had no doubt they would be intrigued. Roach had written about cadaver research for Salon.com. The columns received such a large number of hits, she knew there would be interest in developing the subject into a book.

“The topic is a taboo, and partly there’s a fascination for it because it’s taboo,” she says over a bowl of cereal at the Holiday Inn in Pullman this September. She is bracing herself for a full day of events at WSU, ending with a campus-wide lecture and starting with a grilling from freshmen in a world civilization class. “How did you manage to stay respectful of the dead?” “What was your most disturbing experience?” “Is practicing plastic surgery an ethical use of cadavers?”

This book was a great choice for the university’s common reading program, says Karen Weathermon, director of WSU Learning Communities. It’s a good blend of science and literature, written in a lively, funny way. Because its subject matter is rooted in science and history, teachers have been able to use it in a variety of classes, she says. It also has connections to research being done by faculty here at WSU.

This is the second year of the common reading program and with Stiff as a starting point, professors were able to flesh out different aspects of death, the body, and science. A series of Tuesday night seminars included a primer from entomologist Bethany Marshall on using insects to determine how long something has been dead. Brian Kemp, an archeologist, is using DNA to answer questions about prehistoric cultures. And a panel of faculty including Dave Conley, head of WSU’s human anatomy lab, talked about the value of the human body.

Even with the book’s potential for discussion, those on the committee that chose the common reading text were reluctant to admit how much they liked Stiff. Roach’s approach, the dark subject, and her light touch made reading it a guilty pleasure, admits Weathermon. What comes to mind is the episode of Roach traveling into China trying to track down the truth behind a news wire story that two brothers were using human flesh to make Sichuan-style dumplings.

That’s the thing about non-fiction, says Roach, “it takes you to these worlds you didn’t know existed. It’s like going to a university, but it’s less expensive.” Given that most non-fiction paperbacks run about $12, “it’s really an extraordinary learning bargain.”

Non-fiction books like Roach’s have surged in popularity in recent years. Roach thinks it’s not a matter of writing, but of marketing. All along there were really gifted non-fiction writers—Joseph Mitchell and E.B. White to name two—but they didn’t really have a genre, she says. Now that there’s a “literary non-fiction” label readers know there’s something out there they might enjoy.

And for college students, even if the subject is grotesque, it may whet their appetites to read more.

On the Web:

{ Listen to an interview with Mary Roach on National Public Radio
(‘Stiff’ Examines ‘Lives’ of Cadavers – All Things Considered) }