The Best Books I've Read By Accident This Year
Most of the books I’ve read in the last year or so have been entirely new to me. I’d guess roughly 90% were the result of an offhand comment from someone on Twitter, more often than not someone I didn’t know or even follow, casually unlocking a new-to-me and seemingly designed-for-me imprint, subgenre, or author, and the success rate has been hovering just around 100%. I can’t say what’s caused this sudden uptick in bang-on-the-nose recommendations, but I’m certainly not complaining.
[I am still having trouble finding a copy of Lotus Weinstock’s 1982 memoir, Lotus Position, in case any of you happen to be secondhand booksellers and know where I can pick one up. It’s listed on all the usual places — Etsy, Abebooks, Amazon, Biblio, etc — but out of print and seemingly out of stock, too. Luckily my search did lead me to the Rarified Heir show, “a podcast that interviews children of celebrities by the child of celebrity,” in particular a two-parter with Lily Haydn, Weinstock’s daughter, so it’s been a fruitful if not yet entirely-successful search.1 But I still want to read the book! Surely Joan Rivers can’t have suppressed all remaining copies!]
At present I’m reading James Blish’ Black Easter, purchased on the strength of a tweet from a few days ago saying “Every single paperback edition of James Blish’s Black Easter I’ve seen has a cover that goes impossibly hard. Just a flawless record,” which was all I needed to get going.2
The book is dedicated “In Memoriam” to C.S. Lewis, which is an incredible shot across the bow, and begins with one of the most heartening author’s notes I’ve read in recent memory:
There have been many novels, poems and plays about magic and witchcraft. All of them that I have read — which I think includes the vast majority — classify without exception as either romantic or playful, Thomas Mann’s included.3 I have never seen one which dealt with what real sorcery actually had to be like if it existed, although all the grimoires are explicit about the matter. Whatever other merits this book may have, it neither romanticizes magic nor treats it as a game.
Technically, its background is based as closely as possible upon the writings and actual working manuals of practicing magicians working in the Christian tradition from the thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries, from the Ars Magna of Ramon Lull, through the various Keys of pseudo-Solomon, pseudo-Agrippa, pseudo-Honorius and so on, to the grimoires themselves. All of the books mentioned in the text actually exist; there are no “Necronomicons” or other such invented works, and the quotations and symbols are equally authentic. (Though of course it should be added that the attributions of these works are seldom to be trusted; as C.A.E. Waite has noted, the besetting bibliographic sins of magic are imputed authorship, false places of publication and backdating).
A declaration of thorough knowledge of the field (I’ve read most books about magic and at last feel prepared to categorize them and diagnose their shared error), a gentle sense of bemusement at the failures of one’s predecessors (The grimoires have been quite clear, I don’t know why I’m the first to simply pick up what they’ve put down), the citation of a triple-barreled sci-fi initialism like C.A.E. Waite — full 10s, across the board, and although I’m only about a quarter of the way through at this point, I feel extremely confident that Black Easter is shaping up to be an early favorite of 2023.
I was able to find a used copy in excellent condition for around $40, and think the price is worth it, given how long the book’s been out of print.4 In no particular order, here are some of the other new-to-me favorites I’ve come across by chance in the last year or so:
From The Furrowed Middlebrow (“off the beaten page: lesser-known British, Irish, & American women writers 1910-1960”), now an imprint of Dean Street Press:
Apricot Sky, Ruby Ferguson