I read. A lot. Last year I read 65 books, the year before it was 60, and this year I’m hoping to make it 75. I’m working on #27 now, so my odds are good. I thought I’d start doing book reviews some Tuesdays.
This is the first book I was asked to review for Moon Books, a Pagan publishing company. I’m grateful to Nimue Brown for getting me into this in the first place. Writing these reviews is not a paid gig, but I’m a sucker for free books. Luckily this also means I’ll tell you what I really thought of the book.
I volunteered for this particular book because it sounded unusual. It was, but unfortunately not in a good way. I very much wanted to enjoy it and mostly did not. My complaints are far more focused on the structure and editing of the book. This review debunks the specifics of the book better than I can. I’m just not as well versed in the history of anthropology and archaeology as the aforementioned reviewer appears to be.
The whole book started on a weird note; Studebaker opens by throwing into doubt the very connections she plans to explore. I immediately began to question why she was writing the book in the first place if it was so unlikely that there was any connection between Mother Goose and the Goddess at all. This did not bode well.
My central complaint about this book is that she has a major case of confirmation bias. Studebaker so desperately wants to believe her theories that she’s made an entire book out of it. Despite saying in nearly every chapter that the evidence for what she’s talking about is sketchy at best, she continues to write and insist upon connections that she herself disproves. The book has an air of being a serious scholarly book, but is written up like a conspiracy theory. You know, the “the CIA is hiding everything and also there’s a microphone implanted in your toilet” kind of thing.
Like other reviewers, I was puzzled as to why she didn’t provide illustrations. A hefty section of the book is dedicated to describing images that she could have just included. The reason provided for why illustrations were omitted – “Since this book is published in ebook as well as hard-copy format, it includes no illustrations” (xii) – was downright absurd. I feel like ebooks have been able to handle illustrations for at least five years. If they had been included, I think the book would’ve been more credible for it. As it was, the lack of illustrations only served to confirm my suspicion that her research was sloppily done.
The thing is, once I did google images of Mother Goose, I began to maybe kinda sorta see what she was talking about. But what’s the number one rule of writing? Show don’t tell. That’s what I wish Studebaker had done. I might have been more willing to buy her arguments. As it is, she spent too much time describing her evidence instead of just including it, and too little time bolstering her argument.
Two highlights for me were learning the history of the world “spell”, and her chapter on turning fairytales into rituals. The former was a mere digression, but a worthwhile one. The latter was creative but didn’t match the academic tone of the rest of the book. I think if the whole book had been written in a less academic style it would’ve been more believable. Being a recovering academic, I can spot improper use of academic prose in a heartbeat.
I saw this book as a work of theory that was flimsy at best. Unfortunately, it seems to me that the author bills the book as a work of proof based on factual evidence. By doing so, I think she weakened the strength of her points. Studebaker clearly started this book believing she was right and despite presenting evidence that had been discredited, didn’t really support her theories, or outright contradicted her, she ended the book still believing she was right. A serious academic tome, this is not.
Week 33 (Q): the quest for new books
A lot of times I hear newly hatched witches asking “What should I read?” My answer is usually “Read everything”. But inevitably they want me to clarify what I mean. So I figured it might be useful to put together a step by step checklist of how I choose what to read. In general, this list applies more to nonfiction than fiction. (Adopting James also did a great post on this topic.)
Step 1: read to your skill level. This is not to say that those relatively new to paganism should never read more advanced books, but you do need to have a basic understanding of beginner concepts before you can progress to more complex forms of knowledge.
Step 2: read reviews of the book you’re interested in. Read reviews on Goodreads (here’s my list of witchy books and my reviews of the witchy books I’ve read) or your review site of choice. I also like to ask other pagans what their favorite books are.
Step 3: read snarky ass pagan communities like Paganism & Wicca over on Facebook. Seriously, I love this group and the smackdown they lay on a regular basis.
Step 4: compare and contrast. Look at what different lists do and do not include to get a sense of whether there’s a core set of books that almost everybody recommends. Those are often an excellent place to start.
Step 5: read widely. I can’t stress this one enough. You shouldn’t be solely reading two or three authors, nor should you always pick authors you agree with. Read people you know you won’t like, because then you’ll be informed enough to disagree with them. Read sexist asshats (borrow their books from the library so they don’t profit from you!) and people who are just plain wrong. Read everything with a boulder of salt next to you.
Step 6: whenever possible, get a feel for the book. I like to hold books whenever possible and find out how they make me feel. Get thee to your local independent bookstore and feel up some books. (Then buy them on Kindle if you’re me. Sorry local bookstores, but I don’t always have the shelf space.)
That’s pretty much how I choose my books! I really like using websites like What Should I Read Next? and Whichbook, though their recommendations are sometimes a little strange. How do you pick what to read?