Let me admit straight out that I’m partial to some weird stuff.
Over the years, I have gradually acquired all kinds of undeservedly forgotten novels – about which I may write another time – but also numerous works of intellectual history, a surprising number of which deal with outmoded belief systems, pseudoscience and the occult. Admittedly, I’m fascinated by the arcane, the magical and the crackpot, by all the strangely romantic ways people have tried to understand themselves and the universe. Anything at least halfway scholarly about Atlantis, Hermes Trismegistus, the philosopher’s stone, the Holy Grail, Paracelsus, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, stone circles or UFOs sets me daydreaming.
How do you choose a book? Book lists by other writers are a great place to start
For example, I’d like to spend more time with the works of Frances Yates, the pioneering scholar of the Renaissance occult, as well as with James George Frazer’s “The Golden Bough,” his oft-disparaged but irresistibly entertaining survey of myth, magic and religion (do not miss “Adonis, Attis, Osiris”). Though shocking to confess, my copies of two anthropological touchstones, Rudolf Otto’s “The Idea of the Holy” and Mircea Eliade’s “The Sacred and the Profane,” are still essentially untouched down in my basement. That’s also where I’ve squirreled away a fair amount of scholarship about the Arthurian romances, “The Arabian Nights” and the world’s folk tales and fairy tales. Some of it I’ve read – everything by Marina Warner – but one can never know enough about these archetypal stories.
In truth, many of my favorite books, such as Robert Graves’s “The White Goddess,” combine the learned and the fanciful, which is why I expect to relish Margaret Murray’s feminist fantasy, “The Witch-Cult in Western Europe.” As it is, I’ve skimmed but hope to eventually read all of Montague Summers’ pathologically intense studies of witches, vampires and werewolves, after which it will be the turn of “Devil-Worship in France,” by the noted occultist AE Waite, co-creator of the Rider-Waite Tarot deck. Years ago, I wisely did review “A Wicked Pack of Cards,” Michael Dummett’s rationalist history of the Tarot.
Someday, given world enough and time, I’ll happily turn the pages of ER Chamberlin’s “The Bad Popes,” Bernard J. Bamberger’s “Fallen Angels,” Sax Rohmer’s “The Romance of Sorcery,” Celtic scholar Peter Berresford Ellis’s “The Druids , ”Christina Hole’s” Witchcraft in England “(illustrated by Mervyn Peake!), And WB Seabrook’s” The Magic Island, “this last a flamboyantly sensationalist account of Haitian culture and folklore, featuring a notorious chapter about zombies entitled” Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields. ” Other works that appeal to my quirky taste are academically more conventional: ER Dodds’s “The Greeks and the Irrational,” PG Maxwell-Stuart’s “The Chemical Choir: A History of Alchemy,” Robert Darnton’s “Mesmerism,” an overview of hypnotism during the 18th century, Richard M. Dorson’s “The British Folklorists,” and Stephen Jay Gould’s “The Mismeasure of Man,” which surveys the 19th-century obsession with intelligence testing and racial profiling.
You’re done with it all. You head for the hills. What books do you bring?
By now, you’ll have guessed my affection for history’s more outrageous prophets and con artists. One of my bookcases holds biographies of the Elizabethan Magus John Dee, as well as James Randi’s “The Mask of Nostradamus,” WRH Trowbridge’s “Cagliostro,” a life of the 18th-century magician and alchemist, Marjorie Bowen’s “The Courtly Charlatan,” a highly colored account of the supposedly immortal Comte de Saint-Germain, Sylvia Cranston’s “HPB: The Extraordinary Life & Influence of Helena Blavatsky,” the charismatic founder of Theosophy, and Lawrence Sutin’s “Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley. ” Their time will come.
Certain researchers, I’ve noticed, always choose subjects that entice me. Phil Baker, for instance, has written “The Book of Absinthe,” a biography of Dennis Wheatley (author of the supernatural thriller “The Devil Rides Out”) and a study of the symbolist artist Austin Osman Spare. Christopher Frayling’s publications range from the life of spaghetti-western director Sergio Leone (“Something to Do With Death”) to a book on the classics of horror to “The Yellow Peril: Dr. Fu Manchu and the Rise of Chinaphobia. ” In truth, I’ve devoured all of Frayling’s books. I could not wait.
For half a lifetime, though, I’ve longed for just the right occasion to open Basil Davidson’s “The Lost Cities of Africa,” Clark B. Firestone’s “The Coasts of Illusion: A Study of Travel Tales” and Charles Allen’s “The Search for the Buddha: The Men Who Discovered India’s Lost Religion. ” My hope is that these might prove as exciting as “The World of the Shining Prince,” Ivan Morris’s enthralling account of the cultural background of Murasaki Shikibu’s “The Tale of Genji.”
At least four titles in my stock of the eccentric and unusual focus on vision rather than visionaries: Patrick Trevor-Roper’s “The World Through Blunted Sight,” by the ophthalmologist brother of historian Hugh Trevor-Roper (whose Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse (I want to revisit), Oliver Sacks’s Hallucinations, Frederick Thomas Elworthy’s The Evil Eye, and Lawrence di Stasi’s Mal Occhio. The best-known modern possessor of the Evil Eye may well be Mario Praz, author of “The Romantic Agony,” a quotation-rich plunge into the erotic dark side of 19th-century literature (one chapter is titled “The Shadow of the Divine Marquis ”- de Sade, of course). I’d like to reread this, but only after I finally get to “The House of Life,” Praz’s sort-of autobiography built around the furniture and antiques in his apartment.
Setting aside his annotated editions of Lewis Carroll, which are rightly sacrosanct, Martin Gardner’s masterpiece may well be his polymathic survey of symmetry and asymmetry, “The New Ambidextrous Universe.” Another off-trail book I’ve been saving is “Room Two More Guns,” Stephen Winkworth’s history of the personal ads – the so-called Agony Column – of the Times of London. And how could I resist stashing away Milton Rokeach’s “The Three Christs of Ypsilanti,” the case study of three mental patients, each of whom believed himself to be Jesus Christ?
Sigh. Will I ever get to these books, and dozens of others, as well as all that tempting fiction? Who knows? Still, I suspect any reader could share an equally idiosyncratic “secret” list. What’s on yours?
Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.
Michael Dirda’s secret book stash
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