The Book of English Magic

The Book of English Magic is now available and is being published in the US by Overlook Press [also]. Overlook Press was kind enough to send me a review copy.

The cover of this hardcover reminds me significantly of The Ladies of Grace Adieu. Sans dustcover, these have covers which are both rough to the touch and have embossed graphics. This is a trend toward making the book once again into a sensory experience which I think will be seen more as print books compete to offer and leverage what electronic editions cannot.

One of the first things that I noticed as I looked at this book was that the gutters on my copy are off. The print on right side pages are all shifted toward the binding, making the first words of each line a bit awkward to read, I found myself having to force the book firmly open to read the right side pages. Unfortunately, this is an issue with the production of this printing. Another thing as I looked through the book is that there is a halftone used for the personal narrative and biographical sections which is not only a bit too light, but is printed in such a way as to appear pixelated. Kind of disappointing to see pixels in a printed book and ironic in a book that appears to be trying to offer a distinctly non-electronic tactile experience.

However, in spite of these details, the book is still interesting. The range of topics covered are quite satisfying. There were several times that I found myself surprised to see certain things mentioned that simply aren’t often put into mainstream references, at least not without some kind of apologetic or insult by way of excuse. This work does a good job of being even handed toward a wide array of interestingly non-mainstream practices and events which are often treated in dismissive or sensationalistic ways.

Each chapter ends with “Things to Do” and “References” which both offer ways to continue exploring the topics of the chapter through books, websites, activities and tourism. Some of these activities are specific to the UK, which makes sense given the scope of the book, but that’s a little unfortunate for the US audience. However, the potential of these sections is well realized in creating a sense that there is more to know and more to actually do. In many ways, these two sections make it clear to me that this book is for readers of works like Harry Potter who have grown up a bit into wanting to know more. But, I have to admit that not a few times I found myself getting the itch to travel from all the talk about interesting places related to English Magic.

Interspersed within each chapter are some occasional info boxes with pointers to fiction relevant to the specific period being covered, but the major focus of the whole is on the nonfictional history of the western esoteric tradition in england. It is clear that this book is attempting to bridge between the fiction and non-fiction worlds and does a lot to create reciprocal connections for the reader between.

Here’s perhaps the thing I liked most about this book, which is perhaps a bit of a tangent. This book is firstly a good reference and survey, but ultimately it is in them potential for a reader to move from reading to doing that is the greatest value of the work. This could be the bridge for readers of fantasy and fictional magic into at least some kind of nonfiction but moreover some kind of praxis. If Harry potter is, say, the SyFy channel, this book is PBS. Of course, there’s a specifically a kind of apologetic for “armchair” magicians in the appendix, but still the overall work does a good job of offering actual activities which might spark interest in the reader toward extending their experience beyond merely the words on these pages.

Ultimately, I believe this is a great book for the young adult who’s ready for more information about the real history of magic handled in a non-fantasy, non-sensationalistic and honest way. Certainly, there are things mentioned in this book which could be much more thoroughly covered, but there’s a very nice balance here. The result is a work which does a respectable and approachable survey of a complex subject without writing in that fake and saccharine voice so often taken by mainstream works. And, more importantly, while there are a few comments and references which had me doing an eye roll, this is not written specifically to the fluffy bunny crowd. This isn’t something as single focused as, say, an introductory work like The Weiser Concise Guide to Aleister Crowley or an in-depth biography like Perdurabo: The Life of Aleister Crowley. Perhaps these more specific works are next steps, but that’s a good thing in the end. The Book of English Magic serves well the purpose of opening a door to a broad world of ideas in the Western Esoteric Tradition. Hopefully, the young reader will find by the end they’ve found a new passion for non-fiction on the topic.

At the same time, while this survey is a satisfying in breadth and depth, I’m not saying that it is in-depth nor that it is deep. This is a good work for the new, young audience growing into an appreciation for the topic. To be disappointed in the coverage of any given subject, if one is already familiar with such things, would miss the likely audience and intention of the work. If one starts from the expectation that this is a primer to the nonfictional history of English magic, then I think the work is surprisingly well done survey.

I’m somewhat dubious about the initial exceptionalist premise and claim, made in the introduction, that there’s more magic in England than, say, the continent; not to mention the rest of the world. Perhaps in some procrustean way, if one were to say magic is only the western esoteric tradition and if one were to survey only resources in English, the claim becomes true by a kind of confirmation bias. However, there is plenty of interesting source material and this book does cover the scope well enough.

I’d certainly consider this as a gift to or recommendation for anyone in the audience of Harry Potter who expresses an interest in more or who could benefit from a little less fictional, fantasy magic. Moreover, for the after school or home school crowd looking to explore the topic, this could be a good initial resource for many interesting and fun projects and activities. This would also make a good addition to a shelf in a lodge or other venue where people have children in their community of practice they want to engage and offer a way to begin broaching the topic of non-fiction magic.

The Book of English Magic by Philip Carr-Gomm and Richard Heygate
Overlook Hardcover
October, 2010
ISBN: 1590204158 (isbn13: 9781590204153)
Hardcover, 576 pages