Mary Roach

The author of Packing for Mars shares the books she would take along for the ride.

Mary Roach

Mary Roach’s work follows the author’s infectious fascination with beguilingly arcane corners of science. With her first two books, Stiff and Spook, Roach explored science’s relationship to death, detailing the uses of human cadavers throughout history and chronicling the ways people have tried to understand what, exactly, happens when we die. Bonk looked not at what hides under the bed, but the biological complexity of what happens on top of it. With Packing for Mars, Roach turns her attention to humans who leave those earthly questions of life and death behind in order to explore space — and the frontier of the human capacity to survive. Here she shares with us the three books she would bring if she were stranded on a deserted planet.

Books by Mary Roach


By Cormac McCarthy

“Anytime someone would tell me they love Cormac McCarthy based on having read All the Pretty Horses, I’d tell them they can’t say they’ve read McCarthy until they’ve read Suttree. I’d compare Horses to Hemingway and Suttree to Faulkner. What a jerk! Like I’m part of some elite club that only the hardiest reader gets to join. But secretly, that’s how I feel. It took me months to finish this book. Honestly, a whole haircut grew out as Suttree rowed his skiff back and forth along the river. My vocabulary tripled. (In flipping through it recently, one sentence sent me to the dictionary three times-sulcate, ossature, cerements.) I can’t remember the book in any detail, but it’s still with me. It’s like this nightmare I had as a child: I looked into a car parked alongside a road at night, and I saw something dark and terrifying. When I awoke I had no memory of what was in the car, but the feeling was still lurching around inside somewhere.”

Geek Love

By Katherine Dunn

“Not geek as in computer geek. Geek as in person (woman, in this case) who bites the heads off chickens. And later doses herself with arsenic and radioisotopes in order to spawn her own family of sideshow freaks. Grotesque, yes, delightfully so, but also high art. (Geek Love was a National Book Award finalist.) I read this book back before there was an Internet. It made me insanely curious about the author. The detail was so knowing and explicit. Had she herself worked the midway of some dying roadside carnival? I awaited the next novel. It never came. I could Google her right now, but I prefer to preserve the mystery.”

Noodling for Flatheads

By Burkhard Bilger

“I happened to pick this book up and reread it about the time of the last presidential election. While politics dug a firebreak between red state and blue, this book was a reminder, for me, of the rural South’s enchantments. Bilger was once my editor, but my adoration of his writing would be as strong if I had not ever met him. Like the short stories of Eudora Welty, this is writing that makes a northerner want to drop out of her life and re-emerge south of the Mason-Dixon with a shotgun and a still. (And why not? I’ll never, as long as I live, write descriptions as fine as Bilger’s: “He’s finding his groove now, voice rising and falling like a country preacher, body rolling and bobbing in his chair like a balloon on an updraft.”) Bilger is a New Yorker staffer who grew up in the South and, thank God, never really got it out of his system.”