Michael Dirda’s TBR list is the most original selection you’ll find on the web.


Let me admit right now that I am partial to some weird things.

Over the years, I have gradually acquired all sorts of unjustly forgotten novels – which I may write about another time – but also many works of intellectual history, a surprising number of which deal with outdated belief systems, of pseudoscience and the occult. Admittedly, I’m fascinated by the arcane, the magical and the weird, all the weirdly romantic ways people have tried to understand themselves and the universe. Anything at least half scholarly about Atlantis, Hermes Trismegistus, the Philosopher’s Stone, the Holy Grail, Paracelsus, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, stone circles, or UFOs makes me dream.

For example, I would like to spend more time with the works of Frances Yates, the pioneering scholar of Renaissance occultism, as well as with James George Frazer’s “The Golden Bough”, his often maligned but irresistibly entertaining study. of myth, magic and religion (don’t miss “Adonis, Attis, Osiris”). Although shocking to confess, my copies of two anthropological touchstones, Rudolf Otto’s “The Idea of ​​the Sacred” and Mircea Eliade’s “The Sacred and the Profane”, are still essentially intact in my basement. It’s also where I accumulated a fair amount of scholarship on Arthurian romances, “Arabian Nights” and folk tales and world fairy tales. I’ve read some of it – all from Marina Warner – but you can never know enough about these archetypal stories.

In truth, many of my favorite books, such as “The White Goddess” by Robert Graves, combine the scholarly and the whimsical, which is why I expect to savor Margaret Murray’s feminist fantasy, “The Witch-Cult in Western Europe”. As it stands, I’ve skimmed over but hope to eventually read all of Montague Summers’ pathologically intense studies of witches, vampires, and werewolves, after which it will be “Devil-Worship in France”, by the famous occultist AE Waite, co-creator of the Rider-Waite tarot deck. Years ago, I wisely reviewed “A Wicked Pack of Cards”, the rationalist history of the tarot by Michael Dummett.

One day, given enough people and enough time, I will happily turn the pages of “The Bad Popes” by ER Chamberlin, “Fallen Angels” by Bernard J. Bamberger, “The Romance of Sorcery” by Sax Rohmer, “The Druids” by Peter Berresford Ellis. “, “Witchcraft in England” by Christina Hole (illustrated by Mervyn Peake!), and “The Magic Island” by WB Seabrook, this latest flamboyant and sensationalist account of Haitian culture and folklore, with a notorious chapter on zombies titled “Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields. Other works that appeal to my quirky taste are more academically conventional: ER Dodds’ “The Greeks and the Irrational”, “The Chemical Choir: A History of Alchemy” by PG Maxwell-Stuart, “Mesmerism” by Robert Darnton, 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 examines the 19th century obsession with testing intelligence and racial profiling.

By now you will have guessed my affection for the most outrageous prophets and swindlers in history. One of my libraries contains biographies of the Elizabethan mage John Dee, as well as “The Mask of Nostradamus” by James Randi, “Cagliostro” by WRH Trowbridge, a life of the 18th century magician and alchemist, “The Courtly Charlatan” by Marjorie Bowen. a very colorful account of the so-called immortal Comte de Saint-Germain, “HPB: The Extraordinary Life & Influence of Helena Blavatsky” by Sylvia Cranston, the charismatic founder of Theosophy, and “Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley by Lawrence Sutin. “Their time will come.

Some scholars, I’ve noticed, always pick topics that appeal to me. Phil Baker, for example, wrote “The Book of Absinthe,” a biography of Dennis Wheatley (author of the supernatural thriller “The Devil Rides Out”) and a study of 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 horror classics to “The Yellow Peril: Dr. Fu Manchu and the Rise of Chinaphobia”. In truth, I devoured all of Frayling’s books. I couldn’t wait.

For half a lifetime, however, I have dreamed of having the right opportunity to open Basil Davidson’s The Lost Cities of Africa, Clark B. Firestone and “The Search for the Buddha: The Men Who Discovered India’s Lost Religion.” I hope these might prove as thrilling as “The World of the Shining Prince,” Ivan Morris’ gripping account of the cultural context of Murasaki Shikibu’s “The Tale of Genji.”

At least four titles in my stock of eccentric and unusual focus on vision rather than visionaries: “The World Through Blunted Sight” by Patrick Trevor-Roper, by the ophthalmologist brother of historian Hugh Trevor-Roper (whose “The Hermit of Peking: Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse” which I want to revisit), “Hallucinations” by Oliver Sacks, “The Evil Eye” by Frederick Thomas Elworthy and “Mal Occhio” by Lawrence di Stasi. The modern possessor the best known of the evil eye may well be Mario Praz, author of “The Romantic Agony,” a quote-rich dive 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 love to read this again, but only after I’ve finally gotten to “La maison de la vie,” a kind of Praz autobiography built around the furniture and antiques in his apartment.

Aside from his annotated editions of Lewis Carroll, which are rightly sacrosanct, Martin Gardner’s masterpiece may well be his polymathic study of symmetry and asymmetry, “The New Ambidextrous Universe”. Another off-road book I have kept is “Room Two More Guns”, Stephen Winkworth’s story of personal ads – the so-called Agony Column – from The Times of London. And how could I resist putting 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 more, and all that tantalizing 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 stash


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