[NB] The Ol’ Book Challenge

I’ve always liked this oldie but goodie from Runesoup. My partner and I have probably played the game a dozen times or more while talking about one thing or another, and I have often thought about doing a post themed on it. But I’ve never quite found the angle that worked for me.

I have one now. What makes this one different than the previous efforts is that it feels like something that could lead toward what I do, but also might lead elsewhere. It feels more open and genuine thereby.

So, quick review of the rules from Gordon’s original post:

The Book Game

How would you introduce someone to magic using only books? He or she has a month in a lake house and will read whatever you tell them in the exact order that you tell them to. Not even any peeking at other books on the list.

The Rules

  1. Fiction is allowed.

  2. You have to specify what brand of magician you want to build beforehand. (Hermeticist, chaos, etc.)

  3. You can’t tell the subject this.

  4. You must include books from at least three disciplines. (This is to stop you just giving the Complete Golden Dawn and then declaring the subject a GD-style magician at the end.)

  5. It’s only books. No guru teaching, no magical training. Just books. (It’s a book game.) Presume they will do the exact same amount of exercises out of the books that you did.

  6. The subject goes into the house without any belief in magic. They are a smug, modern agnostic.

  7. A maximum of ten titles. Trilogies count as three books.

And here we go, for a broadly American-inflected Pansophism. I am going to add bonus tracks to each, not required but providing ways to capitalize upon the lessons. They exceed the strict rules of the game and if they really offend you, consider them the list the would-be magic worker gets after they are released back into the wild.

(1) Letter to a Priest by Simone Weil

This is the key theoretical text. It is brief, probing, and raises many more questions than answers. Weil has some strong biases, but she is blunt and transparent about them. At its heart, the text is a plea for a genuinely universal faith, one that affirms rather than attempts to eliminate the reality of cultural difference.

Part of its strength lies in its acceptance and affirmation of many people’s agnosticism and atheism. In trying to go beyond pat apologetic work, Weil points the reader toward a vein of inquiry rather than dogma.

Bonus track: Read Revelation with Weil’s concerns in mind.

(2) Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

This is my first of two bits of fiction. I have read nothing else, fictional or nonfictional, that so viscerally and briefly captures the long trajectory of spiritual healing. Silko’s tale captures the personal immediacy of the work, its disruptive dimensions, and manages to shine a light on the destructive realities of empire.

Bonus tracks: Spend a lazy afternoon listening to some icaros.

(3) Teen Witch by Avery McDaldno

I’ve raved about this one before and it is the most explicitly practice-oriented text on this list. It joins intuitive work with plant spirits to a framework committed to healing and transformation. After the theoretical and the fictional, this provides the would-be pansophist with an opportunity to dig into some actual work. Framing it as a game hopefully helps them get over some of their ingrained materialist biases.

Bonus track: Visit a proper herb garden with living plants, take a walk in the woods along the lake.

(4) A Recitation of Ifa by Judith Gleason

This book is here for three reasons. First and foremost, Gleason’s account exemplifies the core values of pansophism.  The autobiographical dimension provides the reader with a sense of magical wonder and awe while Gleason’s wide ranging and well-educated mind allows her to nimbly suggest how this wisdom resonates with more familiar European sources.

Second, Gleason’s love of Ifa and her cooperation with an African babalawo provide the reader with a vivid snapshot of wisdom developed according to West African rather than European principles.

Third, the intertwining of ritual and oral wisdom, divination and ethical action, is admirably achieved.  Gleason retains a respectful distance throughout, admiring and interpreting what she can, but acknowledging the depths that remain inaccessible to her. The sense of depth is a bulwark against lazy appropriation.

Bonus track: Teach yourself the rudiments of a geomantic system, either the I Ching or European geomancy.

(5) Finding Soul on the Path of the Orisa by Tobe Melora Correal

This text adds an essential layer of spiritualism and ancestor veneration to the magical mix introduced in Teen Witch and provides a window into what work with exceptionally enlightened spirits looks like, especially in a communal context. The interconnection between Orisa and Ifa means that the reader won’t be coming to this cold and will find in it material that deepens the personal scope opened in Gleason’s text.

Bonus track: Take a field trip to a botanica.

(6) Honey from the Rock by Lawrence Kushner

It is with this that we turn back toward the pansophism intimated by Weil’s work, a broadly ‘Catholic’ faith and work rooted in the world from which Christianity was born. Returning to that through the lens of a Judaic text provides an important counter-balance to Weil’s overly harsh criticisms of Judaism. Kushner’s ready integration of rabbinic study, self-reflection, and autobiography develops some of the same themes as Correal, but in a different context.

It also provides another important counterpoint to Weil. Whereas Weil is looking inward, critically, at a living faith, Kushner is looking outward, expansively, from within a living faith. Weil was hoping to find something pansophic, whereas Kushner operates from within a framework he takes to be pansophic.

Bonus track: Read one or more versions of the Sefer Yetzirah.

(7) VALIS by Philip K. Dick

While I would prefer to subject the reader to the larger Exegesis, this strangely autobiographical science fiction provides a more accessible window into Dick’s neo-Gnosticism. Dick’s critical and wild speculations about the nature of his experiences expands the theoretical repertoire of our would-be pansophist, teaching them to look at a phenomenon from multiple interpretations.

Having read Correal and Kushner, they should be prepared to consider the spiritual intelligences in a different register, too, as part of a broad network of forces. Having read Silko, they might be ready to consider and respect the healing dimensions of Dick’s narrative. All in all, the world should seem a little familiar even if the framework is quite different.

Bonus track: Spend some time dipping into Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis, watch Waking Life.

(8) Bezels of Wisdom by Ibn al-Arabi

This is another turn of the screw, shifting the reader’s perspective yet again into a novel register, one whose influence has deep influences on official and folk theologies. His account of Moses still amazes me.

Bonus track: Read it again.

(9) Of Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston

This book carries the reader through the folkloric wisdom and magic of African America in the first half of the twentieth century. Hurston provides the reader with descriptions of magical acts should stretch the framework built up in the previous reading and experimentation. Harsher realities make their appearance and challenge the reader to consider the scope of magical work and its integration into daily life.

Bonus track: Watch Maya Deren’s film, Divine Horsemen.

(10) Divine Governance of the Human Kingdom by Ibn al-Arabi

This book completes the reader’s practical education, providing them with a robust set of tools for cultivating their faculties, confronting spiritual road blocks, and interacting with the higher levels of existence. While caring much about daily life and intimating magical practice, it places the foundations of the work in the holy world in which these daily ends are secondary.

There are also intriguing resonances between its mindset and the one glimpsed in Gleason’s account of Ifa, providing an important lynchpin in the reader’s appreciation of the ‘pan-‘ in in pansophism.

Bonus track: Read When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron.

*  *  *

There you go. It could probably be tweaked a bit, but I like it.

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9 thoughts on “[NB] The Ol’ Book Challenge

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