The authors of The Varieties of Magical Experience are not messing around. By cribbing the title of the book from William James's seminal The Varieties of Religious Experience, Lynne Hume and Nevill Drury threw their hats over the wall and then spent 230-plus pages attempting to climb a treacherous rampart. The wall in this case is nothing less than a definition and description of magic; not from the point of view of any particular tradition or culture but, instead, what magic is to the people who have practiced it throughout history. They put themselves side by side with James's early 20th Century work and the question is: how do they compare?
They do a lamentably good job. James's book, while a fascinating read, is clearly an artifact of turn-of-the-20th-Century thinking, lacking much in the way of scientific rigor. There's nothing inherently wrong with dismissing such rigor as inappropriate, particularly in matters of faith, except that James uses a very narrow selection of anecdotes from which to draw sweeping conclusions about the nature of religion, ostensibly as a series of logical conclusions. While Hume and Drury's is extensively referenced, it nevertheless suffers from a similar problem of scope. It is impossible (through no fault of theirs) to sum up the breadth of magic's place in societies through the ages in such a slim volume. The natural defense is to accept the cultures discussed as representative of their time and place, but at the moment you accept this the book becomes an interesting collection of anecdotes rather than the sweeping review that it hopes to be.
The chapter on magic in the digital age is a good example. The authors go from describing a decades-old phenomena (religion via the internet) and capturing one of its richest strengths -- as I imagine, so I become -- to conflating all of the cybermagic experience with MUDs and RPGs. The reader who relies on Hume and Drury would think that cybermagic is the realm of Second Life and Chaos magicians, unaware of the rich collection of traditional and eclectic groups who are working in ways that classic witches would recognize immediately.
If we just set aside the unfortunate reach for grandeur, the book is in many ways an interesting and well-written history. A number of fascinating topics are looked at, starting with the nature of humankind's perception of magic (that is, the individual's perspective) and moving through how societies make space (that is, the collective's perspective), or don't, for the metaphysical throughout the ages. In the end, I recommend the book for anyone with a scholarly interest in alternative religions.
~reviewed by Lisa Mc Sherry
Authors: Lynne Hume and Neville Drury
pp. 295, $48
ISBN # 978-1440804182