Esoteric classics: a list of books

Books Occult

Boing Boing guestblogger Mitch Horowitz is author of Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation and editor-in-chief of Tarcher/Penguin publishers.

(Mitch will be speaking in Los Angeles at the Philosophical Research Society this coming Saturday, October 3 and Sunday, October 4, at 2 p.m. daily on the history of the occult in America. Details here.)

Below is a rundown of books that were unique sources of inspiration to me as I was working on Occult America. Some of these authors are not esotericists at all; others cover topics that I fleetingly reference. But each work represents a carefully researched, keenly reasoned, and pioneering effort at comprehending occult topics and personas without lapsing into the kind of excessive credulity or a knee-jerk nay-saying that often clouds our ability to evaluate fringe movements. Each is a triumph of that rarest of traits: clear thought.

Al-Kemi by Andre VandenBroeck
A window into the intellectual and spiritual world of esoteric Egyptologist RA Schwaller de Lubicz, with an appreciative foreword by Saul Bellow. Posits intriguing ideas about the connections between Ancient Egyptian philosophy and the modern West – and also exposes the ethical failings of this brilliant intellect.

Hidden Wisdom by Richard Smoley and Jay Kinney
A 360-degree survey of modern esoteric beliefs by the editors of the legendary Gnosis magazine (the most fondly missed journal on the planet). Their tone is unfailingly judicious, thoughtful, and shrewd.

The Tarot by Robert M. Place
Perhaps the sole guide to Tarot that synthesizes a scholarly exploration of Tarot's roots in the Middle Ages with an understanding of the mystical allegory of its images.

The Rosicrucian Enlightenment and The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age by Frances A. Yates
Probably the most authoritative works ever written on the occult mood of Europe in the late Renaissance period. Yates was a world-class historian, a tireless scholar, and a uniquely empathic observer of religious/philosophical movements.

The Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manly P. Hall
The occult classic published in 1928 by the twenty-seven-year old auteur. This encyclopedia esoterica stands up remarkably well – its passages on Pythagorean mathematics, alchemical symbolism, and the competing histories of Rosicrucianism are especially sturdy.

Alchemy by Titus Burckhardt
A uniquely sensitive, subtle, and compact survey of the misunderstood history and ideas behind this ancient spiritual art.

Edgar Cayce by Sidney D. Kirkpatrick
The landmark historical biography – unparalleled in detail and breadth – of the grandfather of the New Age. This is journalistic historical writing at its finest.

Edgar Cayce in Context by K. Paul Johnson
A brilliant and engaging study of how the influential seer related to the spiritual trends around him. The author exhibits a rare combination of academic depth and spiritual understanding.

The Dawning of the Theosophical Movement by Michael Gomes
A vivid, precise, and deeply intelligent history of this enormously influential occult organization at its inception in America.

Each Mind a Kingdom by Beryl Satter
A beautifully written and highly original exploration of New Thought (or positive-thinking) as a progressive religious and political movement.

Marcus Garvey: Life and Lessons edited by Robert A. Hill and Barbara Bair
The Rosetta stone to understanding the Black-nationalist pioneer in a different light: as a spiritual-mystical thinker.

Pioneer Prophetess by Herbert A. Wisbey. Jr.
A painstakingly researched biography of one of the least-known but widely influential occult figures in American history: the Publick Universal Friend, a spirit channeler who became the nation's first female religious leader in 1776.

Spiritual Merchants by Carolyn Morrow Long
Wonderful insights into the growth of the African-American magical system called hoodoo. Likewise, see the comprehensive (and wondrous) work of hoodoo teacher-scholar-curator Catherine Yronwode at Lucky Mojo.

The American Soul by Jacob Needleman
The most incisive understanding of the collective spiritual search in America.

Early Mormonism and the Magic World View by D. Michael Quinn
Quinn employs rigorous scholarship to reveal the occult and esoteric influences on the life of Joseph Smith. A brave, thoughtful, and irreplaceable work.

Women of the Golden Dawn by Mary K. Greer
Fast-moving as a Dan Brown novel and filled with fascinating detail on the life and work of the women who shaped the 19th and 20th century occult culture in America and Europe.

They Have Found a Faith by Marcus Bach
Bach, who published this exploration of alternative faiths in 1946, was America's greatest religion journalist: A reporter who could go anywhere, venture into any belief system, and place himself at its center in order to grasp the values and aspirations of its participants (which is the only way to understand a religious movement). He was my journalistic hero.