Wiccan authors do not need to get anybody’s approval to write and publish their books, and neither does anyone need to get approval to read whatever they choose.
Indeed, the only force that influences the availability of Pagan or Wiccan books is sheer economics. Publishers will only bring out books they believe will make a profit; and if a book doesn’t sell many copies (or its sales have dropped by a negligible amount), it will be taken out of print. Books are published not according to how good or true or useful they are, but simply by how much money they will potentially make. A brilliant book on an obscure topic that probably won’t sell very many copies may never get published, whereas a schlocky book about
the sex lives of Hollywood celebrities will likely be rushed to press with the author making big bucks. In commercial publishing, money makes the rules. This is not without its problems, but it’s better than living in a situation where “the authorities” get to choose what we may or may not read.
Thankfully, Witchcraft has no Grand Poo-bah to decree what is worth reading (and what’s not). Therefore, Witches must take responsibility for themselves in figuring out what to read.
And just because a book is a bestseller doesn’t automatically make it an essential book.
Wiccans, let it be known, tend to be opinionated people.
From neophytes to elders, most will have definite opinions regarding the merits of this or that book. Most Witches enthusiastically recommend some books while refusing to endorse others. Although Witches usually oppose censorship, they will still acknowledge that differences in quality exist in books—like everything else.
My goal has been to identify those titles that I believe represent the highest quality of Wiccan and spiritual writing. Incidentally, just because a book hasn’t been listed here does not necessarily mean it’s not a good book. Many valuable and useful books on Wicca and related topics simply didn’t make the final cut
The good, the bad, and the ugly
Why am I even raising this issue? Why don’t I just publish my list of books I deem essential, and leave it at that, without making a fuss over books I don’t recommend? There are two reasons. First, every Wiccan who talks to other Witches, even just over the Internet, will quickly run across people who hold strong opinions about this or that book. “It sucks!” “It’s not real Witchcraft!” “The spells in it are bogus!” are some of the more common attacks leveled at books. More sophisticated critics will attack a book because of poor scholarship; because of its lack of original ideas; or because it contains sexist, racist, or homophobic material. Which leads me to my second reason for raising the quality issue. The simple fact is, some books of inferior quality do make it to print.
In the Summer 1998 issue of Gnosis Magazine, Joanna Hautin-Mayer’s article “When is a Celt not a Celt?” demonstrated how some books written for the Wiccan and Pagan community do not always meet the highest standards of scholarship. In the article, the author points out how one bestselling book on Wiccan spirituality is actually filled with historical inaccuracies; such as suggesting that potatoes were native to
Ireland (the potato comes from the New World and never made it to Europe until modern times) and that Stonehenge is located in Cornwall (it’s actually in Wiltshire). No book, author, or editor is perfect—but these kinds of blatant errors not only confuse people who don’t know any better, but they make Wicca look bad to those who do.
Sadly, because the primary reason a book gets published is its potential to make money, some publishers seem too willing, either out of cynicism or negligence, to release books which seem destined to sell well but are poorly written, plagiarized, filled with grammatical or factual errors, or which include offensive material. Of course, most editors and publishers are scrupulously honest and committed not only to making money but also to publishing quality books. But some others may not be so ethical. The bottom line: Every person who reads books on Wicca (or indeed, on any topic) must take responsibility to determine the merits of each book. This is a tricky matter.
After all, most of us read books to learn, which means we’re reading about a subject that is unfamiliar to us. So how do we know if the book is a quality product or not?
There are several ways to approach this question.
Read reviews and get recommendations from people you trust. It always makes sense to see what other people think of a book or an author. If someone criticizes a book, get clear reasons why they don’t like it.
When reading something, keep your own intuition alert. Always read a book with an open mind—which means you’re open to questioning it (even if you like it). And look for the following warning signs. These are some questions to help you decide if a book is not for you.
- Does the book contain racist, sexist, homophobic,
or other hateful/hostile messages?
- Is the tone of the book arrogant?
- Does the book take an extreme position, while heaping harsh, judgmental, or overly vicious criticism on
those who disagree?
- Does the book include information you know for a
fact is wrong?
- Does the book make grandiose claims, without
backing them up?
- Does the book advocate any kind of negative or unloving behavior, or actions aimed at desecrating the
holy symbols of other religions?
- Does the book suggest that magick involves making deals or pacts with spirits or demons, or that
magick involves controlling spiritual entities?
- Does the book advocate manipulating the free will
of others, or using the belongings of others (like a
lock of hair) in ritual without their permission?
I began this post by praising the intellectual freedom within Wicca, and I want to end on that same positive note. Just because a few books get published that contain mediocre, useless, or even harmful material, doesn’t mean we should have censorship or book burnings. The Quakers said it best, with their old saying, “It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”
Fortunately, so many wonderful, beautifully written, and truly magickal books exist on Wicca and related subjects, that we really don’t need to waste much time worrying about the few losers. If a book gets slammed by a critic you trust for containing sloppy scholarship or questionable ethics, simply skip over it and move on—there’s sure to be a worthwhile book on the same topic.
Ultimately, it will be the Wiccan community as a whole that decides what are the truly essential books, and that’s a process I trust far more than anything a centralized authority could ever do. As a reader, it is your responsibility to take a part in this process of discerning what truly has the most value. So read with an open but discerning mind, and don’t be afraid to discuss your opinions with others—or to learn from elders who have knowledge to share.