There are now lots of Pagan books out there, on a huge variety of subjects. Some are new, some are old, some are out of print but still available through second-hand shops and websites. I’ve recently been perusing some older and out of print books on Wicca and Witchcraft, as well as Paganism in general and it’s really hit home just how much one page of a book can make all the difference. In fact, it’s the most important page of any book. And what is that page?
The page at the beginning of a book that has the publishing details on it.
What? Yeup – that’s the bit that I find the most helpful from the start. Why? Because it gives you context. You can find out just when the book was written, so you will see © 2001 Witchy McWitch. These few words give you an idea into the time in which the words were penned, a snapshot in time as to what facts and truths were available, and what were not, and how they were presented. Under that you will see the publishing dates, such as “First published in 2012 by So & So Publishing”. There will be the initial publishing print date, as well as other information to let you know how many printings of this book there has been. If you are buying the book brand new, this reprint information gives you an idea of how popular the book is, as well as the possible opportunities for correction during subsequent print runs by either the author (if they’re still alive) or the publisher (if at all possible).
So why is this important? Well, information changes, history changes as new facts come to light. Knowing just when a book was written will allow for some leniency with regards to what was known at the time, versus what we now know after decades of research. I can forgive a book that is 20+ years old for not having a good history of witchcraft, for example. With even older books I can be more forgiving. The use of terms such as “shaman” and “shamanic”, as another example, can be forgiven because that was the term being used at the time. If the book hasn’t undergone a reprint recently, or has been out of print for a while, then this information just can’t be changed. And this is, at least to this author, a source of anxiety. I don’t know about other authors, but often when you put stuff out there, it’s out there for good and people can forget the context in which it was written.
People change. Facts change. Views of history change. What is politically and socially correct, changes. But old books can’t change. Not unless a new publishing company picks it up, the author is still alive to consult about making the changes, and everyone is happy to go along with it. But so often I will see criticism and horrendous reviews of old books regarding the information contained within. If you look at the book within context, you will know that it is out of date regarding historical accuracy, and then you might be a little more lenient. But instead people slam the old authors, those who many of us from Gen X and previous grew up with. We know that some of the information is wrong, or outdated, if we have the privilege of being able to keep up to date with the latest books and information (and in today’s growing economic crisis here in the UK, and around the world, we know that people have less and less money to spend). Think about it for a minute. If you haven’t been able to buy a new book on an aspect of Paganism in the last decade or so for whatever reason (no money, no time to read it because you’re working two jobs and trying to raise kids, etc.) you won’t have the most up to date information. But people will still criticise you and the books that you have for it, when it is beyond anyone’s control.
(There is a caveat here – some books do just contain information that was made-up at the time, and the author knew it. Or it was just poorly researched when information was quite readily available at the time. I’m thinking of a certain book written in 1990 that states the ancient Irish peoples carved pumpkins. Yeah. We knew better even at that time.)
Books are a luxury. For sure. Not everyone has the ability to do the in-depth research, to keep up to date with the latest information and the world of academia. For some people it just bores the crap out of them. Some people are doers, not readers. We have to take a look at the bigger picture, and stop cancelling authors whose books are out of print, as well as over-criticising people for not keeping up to date with the latest academia. It’s just not possible for some people to do. It’s utterly beyond their control.
I am so lucky that I am able to search around to find these old books, to add to my collection. I am so fortunate that I am able to buy new books with the latest academic research. I understand my white, middle-aged woman privilege here. Which is why I’m not ranting at others online or in person about the material they present, the authors they like, the books that they’ve read or not read (apart from my small caveat above). Because there’s a whole world of circumstances that I cannot possibly understand.
People are throwing out, or at least recycling old books because some of the information in them is out of date, contains bad history or what not. But as I’m re-reading these old books, every time I pick one up I look at the publishing details, to remind myself of the context. I can then be more forgiving. It doesn’t mean that all the material is worthless – it means that we have learned a lot more since this book was written. Now, if it was a brand new book written in the last few years, I might have a different attitude, but again there are variables: is the book self-published? If so, then there aren’t any external editors to say to the author “Look, this claim that you make has been shown to be false, here’s some research for you to look up” or some such. Circumstances matter.
Acknowledging circumstances help us to live more compassionately.
One last thing to think about is that authors, if they have the good fortune to have kept going throughout the decades, will contradict themselves sometimes. This is a good thing, because it is showing growth (sometimes in the wrong direction, it may seem, but it shows that they are still seeking). I released my first Pagan book in 2012, written in 2011. I am most definitely not the same person I was 10+ years ago. I have said things in my older books that I cannot say today, because my life has changed. I mention in one of my old books that I’m vegan, but I haven’t been vegan for a long time now, for various reasons. But someone reading that book will still think I am, or may even criticise me later on when they read a subsequent book and find my position has changed. The history that my older books contain may not stand up to the test of time. But the message, the exercises, the feeling and the passion hopefully will, as long as people understand the context in which it was written.
Words are funny things. They’re like stones, and if you put too much stock in them, hold too many too close to your heart, they will weigh you down. We have to let some of them go, in order to fly. We have to change and adapt with the times, realise that there are circumstances beyond our control, or that we aren’t even aware of while holding a compassionate regard for the past, and an understanding of just how far we have all come.
books give us a point in time. readers must know/learn that. while the Apollo spaceship was the best of the best in it’s day, today it is archaic. But that is irrelevant because everything changes. reading a book written in 1920 gives me a whole world, FROM 1920: a point in time.
your words “white, middle age woman privilege”??? I’m troubled by this opinion. Maybe your grandparents, great, great-greats, worked their fingers to the bone to improve their family? Your adjectives (words, are funny, heh?) ignore a family’s history of toil and struggle. Maybe they were even indentured servants (slaves) in USA? Don’t deprecate their, and your, hard work. Yes, other people may have had it worse, but every family has obstacles. It’s wrong for some people to down play their history in order to placate other people. we are all here, on this day, because our families survived. we should all just muddle along together by being proud of ourselves and our survival.
I acknowledge the hard work that some of my ancestors had to do, and the hardships that they went through, for sure. I know many of their stories. I also acknowledge that some of my ancestors were incredibly wealthy and powerful in Holland because of that privilege. I know my family history, I really do. I’ve had the luxury of time to be able to research it for many years. And today, I acknowledge my own privilege, in being able to do what I do with far less constraint than others whose circumstances are different. In this acknowledgement, I am not putting down my ancestors, but understanding my own personal circumstances in which I live.
Indentured servants had a thoroughly miserable time, for sure, but they were not the same thing as slaves at all.
Great post, Joanna! I saw a review of one of my earlier books, which was written before the World Wide Web was even available, saying “don’t buy this, most of the info is available on Wikipedia”. And just where did the reviewer think the info on Wikipedia came from??? (Not necessarily from my books, but from books in general, originally.)
As Wittgenstein wrote “Alles fließt” (everything flows), or as Herodotus said, you cannot step in the same river twice. I totally agree that things we wrote twenty years ago would’ve been written differently now. (And there are some opinions that I held in the mid-1990s, that I do not hold now, and I am super-glad I did not write them down anywhere.)
Oh my goodness, yes – “you can find this on the internet/wikipedia” criticism from books that were written before the internet existed! Sigh. And thinking about this argument further, maybe now most things are available on the internet, but does that mean that every person has the time, energy and privilege to be able to trawl through all the information, glean the wheat from the chaff, and put it into a coherent structure for a book? Spend the time gathering, researching and writing it so that one can consume it in a matter of days, should one wish? It’s lazy criticism, in my opinion, possibly from people who need to feel superior in some way. And yes, Yvonne – aren’t we glad that social media wasn’t around when we were kids?! I know I certainly am lol!
Oh definitely to all of that, especially the last point.
Thank you, Joanna, for your beautifully written informative article … I hear you clearly and am very appreciative of your wisdom!