B is for Books

So here’s my plan for managing the Pagan Blog Project:

Since each letter gets two weeks and two posts, I’m going to do one post on some long, academic-y rant about a Pagan thing more broadly (something more akin to “A is for Authenticity“).  For the other week, I’ll actually show you something immediately relevant to my own personal brand of Paganism (think pictures and “here’s how I do this thing”).  Look for another “A” post in the next day or two.  Which comes first will be dependent on mood.

But now!  Books!

I’m a whore for books.  Other people don’t even understand.  Pagans tend to be into books, anyway, but I’d be willing to bet that I could still give most anyone a run for their money when purely numbers and scope are considered (while I have a deep appreciation for rare and vintage books, these are not a focus for me because I will always choose “more” books over “better” books).  My role as a graduate student, teaching assistant, and neophyte religions scholar means that I have not only the desire but also the mandate to read and acquire books.  To be clear, this is not a hobby for me.  In the past I have made significant sacrifices in other areas of my life (clothes, food) for the sake of books.  I have rejected family life in favor of reading and research and the adventures that these things inspire.  My career goal for the last decade has been, essentially, to find a way to get paid to sit around and read (actually, specifically, my goal has been to essentially become Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, though lately I’m thinking I’d rather be a Winchester).  And, for now, mission-fucking-accomplished.  Books are an enormous part of my life.  Frankly, I don’t even really know what non-readers do with their time.

So I thought I’d show you my shelves and say a bit about my collection.

1) I’m interested in all things even vaguely witch-related.  I don’t discriminate.  Often what’s most valuable about the material is the insight into that particular moment in the history of thinking about witches.  I don’t care, for example, that the book has an accurate history of Wicca.  I care about what the author thinks and why, and I’m concerned with whether or not that’s reflective of wider trends.  In other words, I’m not necessarily reading a book because I think it’s full of reliable information relating to my own personal practices.  I’m reading it because of what it might say about the field itself.  A good example of this would be a book like Silver RavenWolf’s Teen Witch.  I’m not going to recommend Teen Witch to someone who’s taking their first steps into Wicca (because, more than ten years after the fact, there’s better material out there).  But I do think that Teen Witch is critical reading for someone who wants to understand what Wicca has come to be in the contemporary United States.

2) I often have multiple copies of books, for a variety of reasons.  I have four coupes of the Farrars’ A Witches Bible.  Why?  Because one of them is a cool old Magickal Childe edition, one is my personal copy, and two of them are annotated by their previous owners.  I love annotated books.  Annotated books function like personal diaries and give me additional insight into the movement.  What did the previous owner think was most important?  What did they try out of the book?  Why might they have gotten rid of it?  Often, I can trace names written on bookplates to further owner information, thanks to the magic of the Internet.

3) Interspersed among the more mainstream books (many of you will recognize many of these titles) are journals and magazines (I’ve got everything from NewWitch, Witches & Pagans, PanGaia, Hoodoo & Conjure Quarterly, The Crooked Path, and Modern Witch Magazine, as well as several issues of The Hidden Path, The Witches’ Almanac, the Llewellyn annuals, and The Pomegranate).  These are often even more insightful than regular books, for my purposes.

4) I also keeps tabs on small presses, limited runs, self-published works, and foreign releases (I have a small selection of witch titles in French and a few mass market paperbacks that only saw release in Britain).  Self-published works are particularly fascinating for me.

5) Alongside the books relating to witchcraft (of all kinds), I’ve also included my collections on tarot, Norse traditions, Western esotericism more broadly, African Diaspora traditions (Santeria, hoodoo, Vodou, etc.), and Pagan fiction.  A number of titles are also from evangelical publishers and are specifically anti-witchcraft.  I find these nonetheless relevant (and wildly entertaining).

6) Owning a book doesn’t mean I endorse its author, its publisher, or its contents.  If you want my opinion on a title you see, just ask.  I’m sure I have lots of feelings about it.

As a sidenote, here’s another kind of authenticity claim left out in the previous post:

I’VE READ SO MANY BOOKS LOOK AT ALL THE BOOKS I READ.  This is practically unavoidable with academically-inclined people like me.  If we’re professionals, then it’s our job to Read All The Things, and it shouldn’t be a point for bragging (but, rather, assumed).  On the other hand, that doesn’t make reading any less about Pagan dick-measuring.  We all know that guy who’s just tripping over himself to let you know how incompetent you are because you haven’t read (or heard of) some oh-so-important text.  And the more obscure and expensive the text, the realer witch you are.  Except that’s not actually true at all, and we all know it, which is why that guy is so insecure in the first place.  Don’t get me wrong, I obviously place a lot of value in books and reading.  But owning lots of books (even having read lots of books) doesn’t mean that one is a good critical reader, good at research, good at assimilating and processing information, or good at discerning good material from bad (I wish I got paid every time an adolescent Michael Howard-devotee failed to understand Carlo Ginzburg). You can read lots of books and still be incompetent.  Likewise, one doesn’t need to be a reader to be a kick-ass witch.

10 thoughts on “B is for Books

  1. I envy anyone who has the patience to actually sit down and really read a book. I always try and fail because whenever I sit down to read I’m distracted by all the other things I could be doing. I’ve pretty much just come to the realization I will never be a dedicated reader and am happy if I can read a book or two a year.

  2. Hakea

    I think you own more books about Witchcraft in its various forms and related subjects than my local Esoteric Bookshop does XD

    I’m stoked to read your future posts, I think the way you plan to manage the posts sounds fantastic!

  3. Omg a fellow Pagan Brony!!! Love MLP 😀

    *ahem* Anyway. You have more books than anyone I know. Which is awesome. I love books. And I have to admit to having a thing for annotated books, too. Other people’s notations give me new ways of looking at things–ways I may not have thought about or connections I myself may not have made.

  4. I’ve lost the confidence that I once had in spending money or time on books on Wicca or witchcraft. I lack a perspective for evaluating or applying what I read (an epistemological framework), which derives from the same crisis that drives the insecurity and obsession with authenticity that you wrote about last time. In simpler terms, there is no clear way of determining what is valuable or useful.

    Books generally touch on the same subjects, such as:

    * History and Folklore.
    You already discussed the impulse that goes un-examined among many Wiccans that older (or folky-er) is better, more valuable, or more “real” than the experiences of our own lives. While I feel the same romantic yearning towards pastoral “nature” that is a part of my culture, I do not accept that there is any more “real” truth in things because of their age. You also pointed out that Wiccans usually make terrible historians (witness Gerald Gardner). These two reasons mean that I will, for example, never be interested in 90% of what Avalonia Press produces or most of the comparative folklore (half-digested Frazer) that the Farrars spend their time on in the Witches Bible. I have Wikipedia for bad history — it’s free and much more palatable than a hundred pages of pointless stream-of-consciousness free-association masquerading as history in lots of pagan books. But even in the case of good Pagan history (Ronald Hutton), the question “why should I care?” or how history is relevant and valuable wreaks havoc. In the end, history too far removed from the causal chain of our immediate life or culture(s) is like a bag of legos for building authentic selves. Once the illusion of authenticity is dispelled, then the allure of ancient folklore –and the desire to spend hours studying it — fades.

    * Ritual and Magic
    I wrote and deleted a long analogy between magic and cooking, pointing out that most recipes are garbage and suggesting that most books on ritual are probably also garbage (I won’t be cooking random things from allrecipes.com for the same reason that I’m unlikely to pick up a Christopher Penczak book). I don’t think that analogy quite works, though, except to point out that authors trying to convey complex processes often fail to the cost of readers without good filters. Developing good filters takes time and experimentation, which requires a level of positive reinforcement and some objective property to test. If I wanted to learn to cook, but I had an eating disorder and found that every recipe I tried both tasted bad and induced terrible emotions around eating in general, then I wouldn’t spend much time developing knowledge of which recipes work and which don’t. Then there’s the lack of an objective element…

    Most authors seem to have adopted some form of the “why do I do it? Because it works.” formula. Again, this is a claim to authenticity or objective value / “reality.” I don’t buy it — I’ve seen too many people fail to be magically healed, too many self-identified witches struggle with the same poverty, depression, and illness that the most mundane among us deals with. If “it works,” then it works in a subjective psycho-social way, which means that what works for one witch or group is unlikely to work for another. Just as someone with a deeply ingrained eating disorder may struggle constantly to enjoy eating, I seem to lack the “openess” or suggestibility that allows most witches to walk away with the conviction that their ritual “worked.” I want magic to work, but I cannot help but feel that I am wasting time that could be spent fruitfully elsewhere.

    * Theology
    I have found nothing in my life to suggest that two people experience or interpret a deity the same way. Where theology has utility is in situations where an orthodoxy builds a base for community. Without either orthodoxy or community in Wicca, theology serves only as a sort of abstract autobiography. Unless I am interested in learning about the author, then I see no reason to read theology.

    I agree that reading widely can teach you to recognize the branching pathways of derivative ideas, associations, influences, and syncretic mixtures present within “the field.” This was certainly my experience in trying to learn as much about Gerald Gardner as possible.

    Only I’m not sure that I am better now for knowing. If anything, careful attention to the process through which an idea becomes valuable, true, and authentic has left me with the sense that these things are hollow. If all of the underlying assumptions that authors implicitly ask us to believe are false, then I have no reason to continue reading. I cannot hope to understand them or to understand others who are influenced by their work — how could I? And why should I? I am not (cannot) seek social status or authority within a community of witches — even supposing such a thing exists, and I cannot pretend to contribute or enrich their lives from a perspective that undercuts their most basic values.

    After years of loving books and haunting the Occult section of bookstores, I find myself at a loss.

    1. I can relate to that. I really can. After my training and reading really good books I went back to read some ‘popular basic books’. And I couldn’t, I really couln’t read a single page – the all looked the same. Same statments, same layout, same conclusions, same practises.
      That’s why I love the primes on Wicca from Avalonia, or the one by Morgana – they are small books (~150pages) and get to the point, avoiding 300 extra pages of useless stuff…

  5. And now I will argue with myself like the most boring sideshow act in the world…

    I think that my previous comment needs some concessions. First off, I’m making all sorts of valuative statements (“bad history”, etc.) while also essentially claiming that there is no solid foundational perspective from which to evaluate anything. This is the same contradiction that drives me nuts (mis)reading Nietszche. The end result is that I sort of lamely fall into scientistic language (“objective”) lacking any better grasp of my own basic assumptions. I have written in the past about how what is “real” is not necessarily related to what is useful/valuable. So let’s sidestep the chimera of intrinsic “truth” as an anchor for value as just another attempt to create authenticity… where does that leave any attempt to evaluate our desires and order our lives?

    To make another sketchy analogy… perhaps the value of ideas (their authenticity, truthiness, reality) is a function of popular belief in the same way that money is valuable. The dollar retained its value even after it wasn’t backed by gold and will continue to as cash gives way to purely imaginary numbers. Of course, gold’s value is no more “real” than bitcoins, despite it’s concrete physicality and scarcity… just more stable for it. While I can decide on my own that money has no intrinsic value (and can I even really do this?), I can’t do the opposite and *create* value around some new currency — at least not without involving/creating culture.

    There’s more… I’m exploring the “because it feels good” justification of the value of religious experience and the relationship that creates to fandoms and hobbies — a line of thought that I find no easier to accept. But I don’t really have time to write it out. In brief, “I like it” assumes that the individual self capable of making decisions in a marketplace is the ultimate anchor of authenticity. Of course, our decisions are no more our own when choosing “what we like” than in any other context. For example, I love to eat spicy food, but it tears up my guts. Which is the “real” me — the socially-conditioned part of my brain that makes taste judgments or the body that rejects them? There’s more … doing what you like (hobby/fandom) being a very culturally-specific behavior, indicative of privilege… Religion occupying a higher place in the evaluative order… Hobbies/fandoms anchored to very brief fads… etc. Suffice it to say that “because I want to” doesn’t work any better when I attempt to justify interest to myself, than “because it’s ancient,” etc.

  6. Gosh! That’s an humongous collection! As a pennyless student, I am green of envy…
    I am missing books from Avalonia like ‘Wicca: Magickal Beginnings’, though. Their catalogue is very very nice 🙂
    Also dear Morgana’s ‘Beyond the Broomstick’, an excellent prime!

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