I have a confession to make: I am a bibliophile.
I love books, always have. As long as I can remember, I have liked spending time in libraries, scrolling through piles of books in second hand stores and re-reading the volumes making up my ever-growing library. From Donald Duck to philosophy, classical theater, academic literature, journalistic essays, and archaic poetry, I have gone through more books than I can tell.
Even nowadays, with a small kid in tow, half a dozen part-time gigs, and my own academic writing, I still read at least a book a month. The latest I finished was a massive 1200 page brick that analyses of the life of Dr. Fredrick Cook and the so-called North Pole controversy. It proved to be a thoroughly enjoyable read.
And yet, despite this life-long attachment (one could almost say devotion) toward the written word, I have grown more and more critical of reading as of late, especially in the context of the modern Pagan movement. Even though the title of this essay may seem sensational – if not outright click-bait – I must stress that it perfectly encapsulates the essence of my grievances which will be detailed and, of course, nuanced in the paragraphs to follow. However, the prospective reader should keep in mind that this diatribe of mine does not come from a place of ignorance or prejudice, but from one of passion, familiarity, and deep involvement with the topic at hand. It is, in essence, an attempt at constructive criticism, outrageous as it may seem.
Let me expand on exactly what I believe to be the main problems surrounding this activity. I believe that there are two, interconnected aspects of reading, or rather, reading culture, that can be detrimental to the reader: first is the all-too-common conflating of reading and learning; second is the tendency of reading to shackle the reader and breed passivity.
The first of these points of criticism is probably the easiest to comprehend. While reading and being bookish in general is often considered a mark of intelligence and maturity, in reality, the causality between the two is not as straightforward as it may seem. The origin of this confusion can be found in schools, where kids are trained to receive, memorize, and digest information on an ever-growing scale, mostly through the medium of books. Quickly enough, the written word takes upon a preponderant role in the daily life of pupils, whose academic (and likely later professional) success rests upon their ability to read and make sense of whatever they find in their schoolbooks. In this context, yes, being able, if not willing, to immerse oneself into books is a foundational skill that does indeed command respect.
The real issue here is that, while schools do encourage reading, they only truly stand behind really casual reading of documents that are highly curated and present mostly surface-level information. Rarely, if ever, will engaging with the text be encouraged or even possible for the pupil, thus turning reading into an overwhelmingly passive activity, unconducive to result in true, longstanding learning.
Try to reminisce from your school days – how often were you called to discuss the context of the creation of a text? How often did you apply textual criticism towards a source you were asked to examine? Were you made aware of the academic debate surrounding the facts you were taught? I certainly did not experience that often, and I graduated from a literary-focus high school program that probably went above and beyond what the average high school offers.
This approach of reading, while it can and often does deliver acceptable results in a basic educational system, unfortunately trivializes the written word and goads pupils towards a false sense of confidence which they often carry throughout their adult lives. In truth, real knowledge does not stem from reading books or consuming any other type of media, but can only be attained by engaging with the written word in a transformative way. This, however, demands much time and mental involvement, things that are often in short supply even among the best of us. It is instead significantly easier to fall back to a passive mode even when reading material that is of profound interest to us.
This, if it is relatively unconcerning when it comes to the general population, can quickly become a problem in a Pagan context. While there is tremendous diversity among the numerous more or less interconnected religious traditions that form modern Paganism, in most of them, the written word nevertheless takes a critical, if not at times central, space. In a way, it could be seen as wildly ironic that a religious movement born partially in opposition to the dominant Christian worldview, which cherishes scriptures to a sacral degree, would be so dependent upon their own writ, but in retrospect, it does make a lot of sense.
Because modern Paganism is a relatively young and decentralized phenomenon, there is less in the way of traditions, practices, folklore, and infrastructure compared to more established faiths. As a result, many practitioners (particularly those pursuing a reconstructed path) tend to find solace in writings, especially ancient sources. Eddic poems, old Gaelic chants, Roman chronicles, or Greek drama are all held in high regard by the followers of various reconstructed Pagan faiths, all the while being of much use to practitioners of other traditions as well. In addition, early Pagan literature such as the works of Gardner, Buckland, Cunningham, Bonewits, and more has long been held as mandatory reading in those circles.
In the years and decades following the work of these household names, new authors began to pop up, and soon a whole new ecosystem of Pagan publishing was born. Once incredibly niche, this sector has as of late experienced immense growth as public interest in Witchcraft and alternative religions became more common place. The frequency at which such books are published nowadays serves as a witness to how central reading has become to both freshly baked Pagans and their more experienced peers.
Still, when one looks beyond the glossy covers and the promising sales charts, what are we left with? Some modern Pagan books certainly are well-written, informative, and the result of hard work and real creativity, but is this necessarily the rule?
Looking back at some of the books I read in my younger years, I now realize how most were rather tepid, surface-level works that offered little in terms of reliable information or critical analysis. In this, I am sure that I am not alone. In pretty much every Pagan home I have ever visited, I have been met with the same sight: massive shelves crammed to the brim with mounds of dusty books, most covering the same topics as the ones next to them. At this point, one could ask, what is the value in owning half a dozen books about runes written by amateurs that mostly rehash whatever has already been penned by previous amateurs? Is reading four books on hedge-witchery taking us deeper into our spiritual path than if we had stopped after just one?
Unfortunately, in many cases, instead of making use of his or her reading experience, the reader ends up warped into a cycle of consumption. It is, after all, logical. Each and every book builds upon other works, references various events, and introduces diverse areas of learning; the best ones can get a reader inspired enough to try others out. I can see it very well in my own experience: I once read a neat book about the Greenlandic Polar explorer Knud Rasmussen, in which another explorer, the Icelandic-Canadian-American Vilhjalmur Stefansson was mentioned. This led me to read a volume about the latter’s 1913–1916 expedition, in which the names of fellow explorers Leffingwell and MacMillan came up. Sure enough, I picked up and devoured bibliographies of those men as well soon after.
Did I have a good time reading those? You betcha! However, what did I get from this experience besides a better general understanding of a very niche aspect of early 20th century history? Not much, really. It just made me want to read about this topic even more, and read even more I did. However, while I was enjoying the epic tales of arctic survival in the safety of my own home, part of me was yearning to experience even just a sliver of what those exceptional men went through: braving chasm-riddled glaciers, fending off bloodthirsty polar bears, witnessing shamanic rituals in the middle of the frozen tundra, and so on. Obviously, for practical reasons, I did not do any of that, but did I do anything even remotely similar, anything that would set me on the path to maybe get there one day? Hell no. I didn’t even take any notes.
In essence, I was merely consuming those works and engaging in superficial study and mental escapism, something that I believe sums up most people’s reading experience quite well.
When taken to this level, reading unfortunately becomes an end unto itself, generating little growth and having next to no impact upon the material world. This is a pity, considering how inspiring some books can be. An analogy I think fits very well here is that of Óðinn seizing the runes. In one of the most stirring passages of the Poetic Edda, the Hanged God is made to say the following:
Þá nam ek frævask ok fróðr vera
ok vaxa ok vel hafask,
orð mér af orði orðs leitaði,
verk mér af verki verks leitaði.
Then I began to mature and be wise
to rise and to thrive
from a word, a word sought another word for me
from a deed, a deed sought another deed for me
(Hávamál 141. Eddukvæði I (2014). Eds. Jónas Kristjánsson & Vésteinn Ólason p. 351.)
This to me paints a very vivid picture of how enthralling engaging with the written word can be. However, in the following verses, Óðinn goes on to demonstrate the very practical uses of his newly-acquired knowledge, which are detailed in numerous other sources as well. Here we see how the written word, the quest for knowledge, wisdom, information can be positively channeled into the world.
Similarly, reading should not be an end goal, but an avenue for growth and change in the material world, as well as the spiritual one. To take this path, one must approach reading (and media consumption in general) from a different angle, discard the casualness one is wont to, and harness the inspiration the written word can so well carry.
Indeed, enacting growth is hard, but as one old French saying goes, “Il faut savoir se faire violence” (one must know how to be rough against oneself). After all, the written word itself bears witness to the resilience and the creativity the human spirit is capable of: each and every book was birthed through the twin forges of struggle and inspiration and are in and of themselves acts of change that carry the seeds of further growth.
Let us then harness this inspiration, this power and take it to the next level. Let us go beyond mere media consumption and actually use the written word as it was intended, as a resource, and not as an objective. Let books still be made, but may they truly bring something new to the table, establish new paradigms, shed light to domains of learning that are still eschewed and especially, let’s truly engage with these works. Finally, let us look beyond the written word, let us be inspired to influence the material world as well as the spiritual one.
Let’s dare to gather, to tend to groves, to erect shrines and boldly step up into the light of day. So let us roll up our sleeves, seize those runes, and conjure something, anything, just as long as long as it done. Let us become more than what we once were, like the Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose once wrote – in a book mind you: “It is in the moment of inspiration that man becomes a creator.”
Paganism can be so much more than a book club. How much can be accomplished is simply up to us.
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