Thursday, April 28, 2011

Review: The Big Little Book of Magick by D.J. Conway

I was sent a copy of this book to review back in March. Looking around the blogosphere, I'm thinking that the publisher must be plugged into our informal magick blogging circle because fellow blogger Rob was sent a copy to review as well. I recommend that you take a look at Rob's review in addition to mine, as he makes some good points about the book's weaknesses from the perspective of an experienced magical practitioner. He wound up not recommending the book, and while I agree with a number of his criticisms my impression is more positive so long as its target audience is taken into account.

Let me be clear - this is not a book that I would buy for two reasons. First of all, I am not nor have I ever been a Wiccan, and there are a number of assumptions in the book coming directly from that worldview which I disagree with, in some cases quite strongly. Second of all, I doubt that even an intermediate magical practitioner is going to find anything new or useful in it. Nonetheless, that's not who the book is aimed at. This is the sort of book that is intended to sit on a shelf at a bookstore and attract the attention of seekers who know nothing about magick or Wicca and want to learn about it from a very basic perspective. I don't know that many readers of this blog fall into that category, and the book is certainly not targeted at those of you who come here to read my articles on theoretical models of magick or advanced spellwork techniques.

What I like best about the book is that even if you know absolutely nothing it contains enough information to get you started practicing right away. The techniques that it covers are limited, but one of the things that bothers me about a lot of beginning books on magick is that in too many cases there isn't much "magick" you can really do with them aside from bits of psychological trickery here and there. You don't learn how to do effective magick by reading and studying, you learn how to do it by practicing. The four sections of the book - Altar Magick, Candle Magick, Pendulum Magick, and Healing Magick - give you techniques that are simple but which at the same time can be used to do some genuine magical work. Altar Magick tells you how to set up a basic ritual space, Candle Magick covers some very basic sorcery, Pendulum Magick explains a simple method of divination, and Healing Magick touches on introductory energy work.

That the book is set up to encourage magical practice relates back to my recent discussion with Rob in that there is pretty much no way anyone could pick up this book as an introduction to Wicca and get the idea that Wiccans don't cast spells. I wouldn't have even considered that concept as a possibility except for the media attention around the case of Carole Smith who apparently believes it. Since then, though, I've heard there are apparently a fair number of Wiccans out there who don't practice themselves and a few who will insist that it's not something Wiccans even do. They must be learning that somewhere, probably from bad introductory books. For all its simplicity, this book is not going to be encouraging that attitude. If this is your first exposure to Wicca, which seems to be the author's intent, you'll understand right away that generally speaking Wiccans do cast spells and at the same time learn a few simple ones of your own that can help you out right away.

In Rob's review, he comments that he isn't clear on why the book leads off with Altar Magick, as he considers it the weakest section. From a beginner's standpoint I think it makes sense, though - if you're going to sit down and do some magick you need a space to perform it in before getting started. And while advanced practioners see an altar as a very simple thing - flat surface, some images, some tools, and you're done - one of the things that I have learned over the years of trying to coach people through the casting of magical spells is that rank beginners are unsure about everything. As I see it the author's intent with this section was to go into enough step-by-step detail regarding the creation of an altar space that most of these questions would be answered. "Do it however you want" doesn't work with novices. Even if you say, "Some magicians do it this way, some do it that way" they'll still ask you to tell them which one is better. And "whichever one feels most natural to you," the correct answer, usually only confuses them.

As an aside, I'm convinced that this is not because beginners are necessarily stupid, but rather that there's so much nonsense about magick in the popular culture that it's hard to cut through it all. Movies and television programs constantly depict spells in which if one tiny thing is overlooked or done wrong the consequences are disastrous, which is nothing like reality. The free-flowing, artistic aspects of magick are rarely discussed or even addressed in media treatments. Rather, it's all about whether or not you can pronounce "wingardium leviosa" with exactly the correct intonation. Once you start practicing and get a feel for how the magick works you can experience for yourself how ridiculous this mindset is, but how is a beginner supposed to know? A book like this, that gets you working magick right away, can help.

This fear of doing something wrong is also one of the reasons I think the author chose not to include various negative symbols in the book. While I think that the "Wiccan Rede" and "Threefold Law" concepts the book emphasizes are beyond silly ("Harm None" is ridiculous because you can't exist without harming something, and the "Threefold Law" is in my experience an unsupported superstition), I can see where the emphasis of positive symbolism can serve to reassure the beginning practitioner that they're not going to, say, unleash an army of Deadites if they can't quite remember that phrase from The Day the Earth Stood Still. More advanced magick does require exploration of those darker paths, but so long as this is understood there's nothing wrong with starting off on the the brighter, happier ones. It's also true that the methods in this book are really too basic for sending out curses safely - that requires a more detailed understanding of containment structures, Godhead assumption, delivering charges, and so forth than I think would be appropriate for a book written at this level.

So my take is that this book is a decent introduction to Wiccan magick and a beginning student could certainly do a lot worse, judging from some of the attitudes that I have encountered over the years in the Pagan community. At the same time, though, keep in mind that being neither a beginner nor a Wiccan it's hard for me to compare it with other books on the same topic written for that particular audience as I've hardly read any of them. Also, if you already have a magical practice and some basic technical understanding you're going to find something more advanced than this book a lot more useful.

Want to buy your own copy of The Big Little Book of Magick by D.J. Conway? Order from my Books and Media page and you can help support Augoeides.
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Unknown said...

Yup...sent me one a month or so back, I just finished reading it myself. I'll post a review next week, but seems unnecessary, as you guys have pretty much covered it.

Theo Huffman said...

Shit! Nobody's sending me books because the postage to Budapest is too steep. Wait a second! How did they get your snail mail addresses???

Scott Stenwick said...

I can't speak for A.I.T., but in my case the publisher e-mailed me and asked if I would be willing to review the book. I agreed to write the review and and then sent them my address.