As more and more books on Paganism, Wicca, and other earth-based spiritual paths become available, readers are often faced with choices about what to read. One of the things people typically find themselves asking is, "How do I know what books are reliable?," followed almost immediately by "Which authors should I avoid?" As you learn and read and study, you'll learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff, and you'll eventually be able to figure out on your own what makes a book credible, or worth reading, and what makes it one that should probably only be used as a doorstop or paperweight.
There are different types of books within the Pagan community, so let's look at what's available, first of all.
- Scholarly works: These are the books that are typically not marketed to a Pagan or Wiccan general audience, but that have still managed to find their way into the Pagan community simply because they're chock-full of information. These are often published by University presses, and are typically written by academic types who may not even be Pagan. Some examples of these would be the works of Ronald Hutton, Peter Beresford Ellis, or John Morehead.
- Wicca 101 Books: Presented in a how-to format, these books typically present a very basic overview of what Wicca and/or Paganism consists of, and usually include a few rituals and spells. Many of them contain the same information simply presented in different ways -- for example, nearly every single one of them will have a chapter on The Wheel of the Year and How to Cast a Circle. The best-known example of this type of book might be Ray Buckland's Complete Book of Witchcraft.
- Advanced Wicca Books: These are the books that are written for readers who have already gone through the catalog of Wicca 101 books. They often focus on a particular tradition -- usually the author's -- and are presented as a potential option for people who wish to grow magically and already have a foundation of basic Wiccan studies. Good examples of this would be books like Dorothy Morrison's Utterly Wicked, Phyllis Curott's Witch Crafting, or Starhawk's Spiral Dance.
- Miscellaneous everything else: Books on how to read tarot cards, the magical uses of crystals and herbs, spell-a-day books, etc. There are a ton of these, some good and some not so much. They're commonly marketed towards people who want to learn more but who aren't yet interested in tackling scholarly or academic works.
So how do you know if a book is credible or not? Well, for starters, let's look at what kinds of books we're talking about. Scholarly works are -- and should always be -- held to a higher standard than the other books. A book that purports to be scholarly or academic should have at least some of the following contents:
- It should use, as references, other scholarly works written by credible scholars. Primary sources are often cited as well.
- The author should recognize and appropriately deal with the fact that far-fetched claims require some degree of proof. In other words, any claims that are really out-there should be accompanied by support from other scholarly sources.
- There should at some point in the writing process be a peer review or some sort of academic vetting done. Reviews should be done by other academics, not by random members of the Pagan community.
- The work needs to be recent enough that it's not obsolete. In other words, if a scholar releases a book he researched twenty years ago, there's a distinct possibility that some of the information contained in it is no longer relevant or has been debunked in the recent past.
- The author should understand that his own credentials don't necessarily constitute proof of fact, particularly if new ideas are being written about. If someone makes the statements that ancient Celtic Pagans danced naked around a giant toaster oven, he better be ready to provide supporting evidence -- and that means something other than just saying, "Well, because I'm an expert and I said so, that's your bloody proof!"