Editorial: Book reviews should be about books: A response to Radford and The Independent

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Let’s first take a moment to note that Ceri Radford’s recent article of The Modern Witch’s Guide to Happiness by Luna Bailey in The Independent was intended as a book review.

Radford chose to undergo a personal transformation for the new year, and in her words, “turn myself into a witch.” She attempts to do so by following some prescribed activities in Bailey’s book. Radford explains that she was motivated to do so because of the rising interest in Witchcraft and adjacent topics such as Astrology, which, as The New Yorker recently noted is “currently enjoying a broad cultural acceptance that hasn’t been seen since the 1970s.” Radford describes the rationale for this particular transformation as seizing the “cultural zeitgeist”.

Fair enough. Radford chose a current topic, a new text described in Publisher’s Weekly, and set off on a week-long experience following sections of Bailey’s book as part of the review. What makes this book review different, however, is that Radford’s opinion is less about a book and more of a rant against certain spiritual beliefs.

Bluntly, Radford’s review avoids discussing the book and instead mocks the Craft. It abuses the critical literary format of a review to produce an essay that would unequivocally have been rejected by editors had it involved Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or any other major faith.

For example, Radford writes that, “One of the things I need, along with a suspension of belief in the scientific underpinnings of the universe, is an altar. Not to sacrifice a goat upon – no, this book is whiter than a student union snowflake – but to claim a space for ‘creativity, spiritual growth and guidance’.” The statement targets belief. Should that statement had been written about the scientific underpinnings of the Eucharist, The Independent would be overwhelmed by outrage.

Radford’s benightedness of Witchcraft thoroughly infiltrates her book review. Radford points out, perhaps rightly, that “Standing in the light of a full moon to recite our resolutions may be harmless, but as a society we shun science at our peril.” She further raises issues like vaccine skepticism and climate change denial in the context of her book review but directing her statement toward Witchcraft.

Her point here is a coward’s stand, and it is obvious in the opening paragraphs. She writes, “…we’re in the midst of a resurgent interest in all things mystic, superstitious or more than a little bit woo.” From an atheistic perspective, such statements could be directed to other practices: lighting a candle to a saint for intercession, placing a written prayer in a wall, or reciting a verse from the Q’uran or Bible for strength. But she chose Witchcraft to raise the “woo,” not the practices of other faiths.

What is more noxious is the uninformed inclusion of topics such as vaccine skepticism and climate denial as though they are part of a broader dialogue on Witchcraft. These are topics that are more confidently present and applicable to communities other than those of Witches and Witchcraft.

And so, Radford fails her own call for enlightened stances. Even the mildest of attempts to genuinely understand Witchcraft would reveal little antithesis or rejection of science. Instead, Witchcraft embraces the marvels of science and Enlightenment values; even more so, I would argue, than many other established faiths and practices.

In fact, had Radford demonstrated the slightest bit of curiosity to seek additional information, her researches would find that Psychology affirms many practices of Witchcraft, from mindfulness to contemplation to ritual. Many such practices demonstrate observable and reproducible benefits to the practitioner even under the controlled conditions of scientific experiments. In failing to recognize known empirical research about spiritual practice and despite her use of terms like “confirmation bias,” Radford exposes her additional ignorance in the actual science seeking to understand such practices.

But what is perhaps most troubling in Radford’s essay has little to do with her at all. It has to do with the editorial blindness demonstrated by The Independent.

The book review does not focus on the book. Even the byline cites the essay as “inspired” by Bailey’s work with the context being Radford’s “New Year, New Me challenge.” Her book review became about the topic and not the book itself. She mentions the book’s suggestions but never the writing style, the book’s imagery, or even its chapter order. Radford obviously scorns the topic and her book review was the delivery mechanism for that bias.

Indeed, when Radford recounts her daily attempts at the books’ recommendations, they seem, at best, haphazard if not disingenuous. Radford’s execution of the book’s suggestions is cynical and desultory, not skeptical or deliberate. It did not seem she sought to learn, rather, it seemed, she sought to disparage.

And yet, the editors at The Independent were unable to recognize that the author’s contempt for the topic is what drives the book review. It is a bias that would never be tolerated in other areas such as during scientific peer review nor against major faiths or spiritual practices.

The editorial amaurosis is both disappointing and obvious. In a different and perhaps more rational world, the editors would retract such a review-ala-rant for its palpable bias, offer a statement or a retraction, or even offer an opportunity to better factually inform their readers about Witchcraft.

None of these will likely happen. Instead, both the tabloid and the essayist will suffer the relative safety of attacking a marginal spiritual community, likely because the outrage will be manageable, with their profits uninjured and biases left in place.