Book Review: Three Books of Occult Philosophy

Last night I finally slogged my way to the end of Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy, one of the major tomes of Renaissance magical thought. It is a mighty slab of words, and the translation preserves that (possibly intentional) opacity that is typical of magical writers; it was a pretty long trek. I’ve been reading it for months.

At the end, my feelings are mixed. I wish I’d picked up more of the classics at some point in my education; I kept wanting more background in Aristotle and Pliny. Certainly I have a better sense of what magic was about at the dawn of rationalism now. I know the humors better, and I finally know the difference between a cherub and a domination. The astrology was a little past me at points, and a lot of the angelology would have been way more comprehensible if I knew some Hebrew. On the other hand, Three Books also has the most accessible introduction to Kabbalah I’ve read yet.

Basically, I learned a lot, but I’m not sure it was worth the massive investment of time. And I certainly wish I’d finished it before I started working on GURPS Magic.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Evading the gatekeepers, figuring out your own shit

I maintain the Writing & Publishing section at work, and as I was straightening up the many, many books on becoming a successful writer, I noticed a shift in my own attitude toward that process.

There was a time when I was very concerned with the mechanics of “breaking in” — how many syllables should the first sentence of your query letter be, and so on. This was, I think, a reflection of my own conviction that I was a good writer, that the market was self-evidently full of books written by people whose skills were inferior to mine, and therefore the whole enchilada of becoming a successful writer was figuring out how to persuade the gatekeepers to recognize these facts.

Any number of things have happened to alter my perspective. Among them is the lesson that there is a mighty gulf between being able to write a good book and writing a good book. (To say nothing of the gulf between being able to conceive a good book and being able to write it.) I think, also, that it’s easy for a young writer to overemphasize talent, that being most of what one has at the beginning of a career. It’s been eye-opening to realize that an uninspired wordsmith who delivers solid product in substantial and reliable quantities is in fact a better writer than the tortured genius who dribbles out a few hundred words when Venus is in trine. Craft is important. Work ethic is important. And talent develops over time. But most important, I think, has been the simple process of getting familiar with my own capacities and my own shortcomings. In wrestling with them, the idea of surmounting them becomes real, and it gives my writing life a concrete future beyond “And then I’m gonna write some stuff”.

I still believe I’m a good writer, and the market is indeed full of books written by people whose skills are inferior to mine. But I don’t want to be one of them. And, having realized that, I believe that when I get where I want to be for any given form, I’ll be able to sell my work on its merits, regardless of whether my query is appropriately dactylic.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Book Review: The Disinformation Book of Lists

I like The Disinformation Company. I like Russ Kick. They do a lot of cool work distributing strange and wonderful information that more people should know, and they do it with style. Alas, I think this set me up to want more from the Disinformation Book of Lists than it could deliver.

To be fair, I would have loved this book with a deep and abiding passion ten years ago. It’s possible that I have simply lost my hardcore edge. But I think it’s more than the Book of Lists is … well, the best way I’ve been able to put it is that it’s conventionally subversive. Lists of heroin brand names, smart drugs, and incidents of homosexuality in animals are interesting, but not exactly mind-blowing. It’s nice to know that Sherlock Holmes was a coke fiend, but my world is not rocked. Nor is it really a shock to learn that characters in the Bible do horrible things.

There are a few lists in the book that are more powerful. I think these are the ones that take advantage of the power of the list format by showing the reader patterns of things that they might have otherwise dismissed as a freak accident. Most people have heard about a nuclear test that dumped radioactive dust on a nearby Nevada town; it’s harder to accept the story as a regrettable mistake when you’re presented with a dozen separate incidents. The same principle works with botched executions and prisoners exonerated after years behind bars. It does not add any power to the aforementioned list of heroin brand names.

I think the book works best, however, as a source of cocktail party conversation. The right type of person can draw a lot of fodder from all the ways people have died at Disneyland. I certainly have.

Originally published on LiveJournal