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Talismanic books?

Attending a recent occult soiree, I was offered the chance to acquire one of those deluxe, bound-in-vellum, limited edition, “this isn’t just a book, it’s a talisman” offerings which seem so popular nowadays. This led to an interesting conversation, touching on medieval European attitudes to books as talismans – which could end up with the “talismanic book” being completely shredded and used as an ingredient in spells and so forth, and a brief exchange about the worship of books in some strains of Tibetan tantra. I did ask the obvious (although slightly taking-the-piss) questions about whether having the book present on my coffee table (which at the moment would mean actually having to buy a coffee table) would render me more effective, attractive, or cause my bank to suddenly offer me a better mortgage rate and was informed that it wasn’t that sort of talisman. Slowly, it began to dawn on me that this wasn’t just an ordinary sales pitch, that I was being offered an entry, of sorts, into a sort of exclusive club – a person whom the publisher deemed to be of sufficient “seriousness” to be worthy of appreciating this hallowed tome in all its glory (subtext: we don’t offer this sort of thing to yer average Joe Bloggs occultist – only to special people) and the publisher was quite taken aback that I wasn’t responding appropriately. Some specialist presses – Xoanon for example, actually make a point of saying that they’ll only sell their books to “suitable people”:

Given the nature of our publishing we reserve the right to offer specific non-public titles to customers of good report. We likewise reserve the right to remove individuals from the list or withhold our works from the unsuitable. It is our hope that by such means we may attempt the placement of our works in the hands of an honourable and appreciative readership. Xoanon Sales Protocol, accessed 19th May, 2010

“Isn’t it a beautiful production?” said the publisher. It was, I agreed, quite beautiful – and thereby hangs one of the problems I have with this whole notion of “talismanic books”. Generally, I buy books because of the content. Presentation is a secondary consideration, although this does mean that I do end up buying some quite lovely books inadvertantly after previewing their contents on Google Books. These “talismanic books” need handling carefully though (like mint condition comics) which means, I think, that one doesn’t leave them in the bathroom, take them to the pub, skin up on them or read them whilst eating spaghetti. Which for me, means that they’ll never actually get read. As opposed to say, my copy of The Book of Thoth, one of the few surviving books I have from the 1980s, which despite being a mere paperback bears the proud stains of coffee, beer, absinthe and the effects of it being used as an all-purpose ‘table’ as I hitch-hiked around the UK. It’s a book that’s lived – and doubtless has a complicated life of its own on the dim lower shelf in the study where the few occult books I still have huddle together against the next impending cull. The Book of Thoth is safe though – not because I still read it, but because we’ve shared so many good times together, and picking it up, I recall the night I spent squatting in a bus shelter outside Darlington, balancing a tin of self-heating beans on top of it, then reading bits of it by torchlight afterwards.

Of course, one can always buy two copies of a treasured book – one to to read, and one to keep in mint condition. I used to know a bloke who did this – and went to great lengths to preserve the integrity of his Kenneth Grant collection – barely opening them so as not to crack the spines, and on occasion, wearing surgical gloves so as not to leave sweaty fingermarks on the pristine pages. He’d paid vast prices for these tomes, and I think was quietly appalled when I told him I’d bought my first copy of Nightside of Eden from WH Smiths’ remaindered books bin for less than two quid – where anyone might happen upon it – even people who are “unsuitable” – who are quite likely to draw spectacles and mustaches on all the art plates.

With all other appeals failing, my deluxe-publishing acquaintance turns to the content of the tome itself – “look, this is real cutting-edge, revolutionary, hardcore stuff- it’s “real occultism” – you won’t find this kind of thing in mass-market paperbacks”.

“Oh. Like the books I’ve published, I suppose”. And on that note, I take my leave.


  1. tsc
    Posted May 19th 2010 at 4:45 pm | Permalink


  2. Hierax
    Posted May 20th 2010 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful post, and I would like to comment more later, but right now I have just one question, if I may: what are the “few occult books” you still have? 🙂

  3. Phil Hine
    Posted May 21st 2010 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    Well I suppose I should say that I was referring to books written by Euro-American occultists – so I am not counting translations of South Asian texts like the Paratrisika-vivarana as “occult”. Nor am I counting books written by practitioner-academics such as Susan Greenwood’s books on the anthropology of magic.

    Apart from the odd old edition of my own books, I have:
    Liber Null, Liber Null & Psychonaut, Gems from the Equinox, Book IV (Parts 1-4) & I think there’s a copy of The Lesser Key somewhere & possibly an old paperback of The Book of Pleasure lurking around too. All of which I hang onto for various sentimental reasons. The brick-like Book IV and Gems were gifts from the late Dr. Hyatt, for example. I keep telling myself are handy for “reference” although they are getting close to my “rule” that if I haven’t actively looked at a book in three years, then away it must go.

    There might be one or two others around (possibly hiding out in my box of spare computer cabling) but that’s pretty much it.

  4. Gypsy Lantern
    Posted May 21st 2010 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    I have similar feelings about “talismanic books”. As you know, I have this book in progress that I’ve been writing forever (between other projects), but it will be finished at some point, and I’ll need to find a publisher for it. The question remains over whether I’ll try to go mass market or “talismanic”. In some ways, mass market really appeals to me. I got into magic by reading whatever I could find for cheap in remaindered bookshops and whatever turned up in the library, so I’d love my work to be available in a way that people can stumble across randomly in a shop and then be taken on a journey by. I don’t really like the idea of writing exclusively for an audience of collectors and “serious occultists”, who can drop £50 on a hardback limited edition tome bound in the genuine skin of snooker legend Steve Davis.

    It’s not really that sort of book, and I’m not really that sort of writer. It would feel a bit pretentious to have this prestigious bound volume, and then when you open it up, it’s just me talking about records and pints of lager and pouring rum in the boneyard. The content would feel so much more at home in a well-designed paperback, as it’s not trying to be some sort of cod-medieval grimoire. I want it to be accessible and entertaining to a broad audience, without compromising its elucidation of magic, and I don’t think those things have to be mutually exclusive.

    However, that said, it will likely be a very strange and idiosyncratic book, and I’m not really sure that a mass market publisher would go for it – at least without heavy-handed editing that risks detracting from my vision of it. I want to do something a bit different, and I think mass market publishing tends to be somewhat squeamish about things that are a bit different.

    I suspect that I will ultimately end up going with some variation of “talismanic” publisher – just because I know I’ll get more control to put out the book that I want to put out, without compromising it to someone else’s vision and mass market sales agenda. But it would be a decision based more on the restrictions of an unadventurous and beleaguered publishing industry, rather than a decision based on the production aesthetics.

    There’s also the matter of how exposure to occult texts has changed since I bought my first books on magic. There wasn’t any internet when I was starting to get into it, and I didn’t get regular access to the internet until I was about 23. My experience of 14-23 was all about poking around the dusty shelves of weird second hand bookshops and being reliant on whatever randomly turned up in the library. I don’t even know if people do that anymore. When you can go online and download pdfs of practically every grimoire you would care to name, or go to Amazon and order virtually any book in print at the click of a button, you don’t get that rush of excitement of being 16 and discovering something slightly arcane like Regardie’s Golden Dawn on the shelves of Waterstones, and trying to save up the money to get it. I think the internet has fundamentally changed how people are exposed to occult writing, and you could perhaps view talismanic publishing as some sort of response to that. In the same way that I value vinyl records over the mp3 format, you could see talismanic books as a way of trying to recapture a bit of magic, mystery and physical tactility in an increasingly ephemeral digital landscape where such things are at a premium.

    When I think about it in these terms, it’s perhaps not the high production values I’m uncomfortable with, so much as the prevailing aesthetic of a lot of these books. It makes me think about the possibilities of hijacking the concept and doing something different with it. Retaining the high production values, but applying it to a different aesthetic that’s more suited to the content. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with nice production, and the internet creates an accessibility that is – or already has – largely replaced the book shop browsing model anyway. My only real gripe is with the portentousness of “talismanic” publishing, and that’s a particular seasoning that doesn’t necessarily have to be added to the dish. Thoughts?

    • Phil Hine
      Posted May 21st 2010 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

      My experience of 14-23 was all about poking around the dusty shelves of weird second hand bookshops and being reliant on whatever randomly turned up in the library. I don’t even know if people do that anymore.

      Actually that’s pretty much how I like to “find” books – and I’ve only just got into buying books from Amazon very recently – and that’s largely because most of the books I’m buying nowadays are specialist academic titles. But I doubt that the kind of books I had in mind in my original post would be likely to turn up in 2nd-hand bookshops anyway – or at least not for very long (2nd hand book dealers seem to be a lot more savvy – again thanks to the internet – about pricing up “collector”-oriented occult books).

      A great deal depends, I think, on what you call “mass market” publishing – which doesn’t necessarily entail either cheap production or heavy editorial interference (something I’ve never really experienced from my publishers). I’m just finishing David Gordon White’s Sinister Yogis which I bought from Foyle’s (£20 quid for the hardback from UCP) and it is a very good quality production. I’ve no objection to good quality production & presentation in and of itself (having bought several limited edition occult books over the years which fell apart if you so much as glanced at them) and I do think you’ve raised an interesting point regarding “talismanic books” as a response to the rise of digital publishing – although of course if you do want to retain full control over your book that is of course an avenue you can go down. There’s probably an element in that, but there are other considerations too. I’ve been skimming Owen Davies’ Grimoires: A History of Magic Books which is interesting in regard to this topic as he is looking at the popularisation (“democratisation” is his term) of occultism in relation to developments in print technology – something which kicks off in the Eighteenth century and received a huge boost (in the UK at least) in the middle of the Nineteenth century. You can expand this of course into the 1980s, with the arrival of affordable Desktop Publishing and the eventual boom in digital/web publishing.

      I can’t help wondering if one factor in the rise of “talismanic books” is the desire to foster an ethos that “authentic” occultism is the province of a select few – not only those able to afford these productions – but being in the “right circle” in the first place in order to get to know about their existence or at least be thought of as sufficiently of “good report” that a publisher will actually consider selling them a copy in the first place. I don’t think it’s accidental either, that there’s a tendency to go for the kind of ‘faux grimoire’ style – heavy on the black, faux-gothic type, naked-woman-with-sigil artwork, etc. It’s gothic camp, really.

    • Gyrus
      Posted May 21st 2010 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

      Hijacking aesthetics and formats is a great way to go IMNSHO. Doing Towards 2012 came out of my experience of doing a lo-fi, cut-and-paste (literally, with scissors and glue) photocopied zine, and being immersed in postal zine networking culture, but also deeply loving coffee-table occulture stuff like Rapid Eye. I wanted to combine the two in a way.

      I realized that with access to good quality DTP (this was around ’95), much of the lo-fi zine aesthetic was choice, aping the necessities of early punk culture rather than doing what punk culture was originally doing (using everything at hand). So I wondered if I – a doley with resources strung together from good will – could produce an A4 colour-cover affair, with “name” contributors but also plenty of fresh voices, and permeated by the grassroots networking ethos. Somehow it came off.

      It’ll be interesting to see what can happen if the “talismanic book” format is mated with a more accessible attitude.

  5. Gypsy Lantern
    Posted May 22nd 2010 at 1:24 am | Permalink

    Actually that’s pretty much how I like to “find” books

    I’d like to get back into doing more of that myself. I reckon the internet actually creates more potential for finding (and finding out about) random occult books as it does for finding records. Dan said something to me the other day, quoting someone who I can’t remember, that there’s never been a better time for buying records. You have access to a global marketplace of record dealers via Ebay (and similar record auction sites); and access to infinite research tools via the internet to find out about potential records that you might be interested in hearing. In a lot of cases, you can get to hear mp3 samples of the records in question before you buy.

    But what is lost is the magic of stumbling across these things at random while digging through the crates in a record shop. Perhaps also due to the internet, to some extent, record dealers are very savvy to value and it’s difficult to come across very much in physical shops (charity shops, second hand record shops) for anything less than its potential high-end market value. It’s one of the (several) factors that are putting record shops out of business, as you end up paying a premium for the experience of finding a physical thing at random in an actual shop. I’ll generally do it if I find something I’m really interested in hearing, but it diminishes the experience a bit when you are aware of this slightly artificial transaction. I reckon physical book dealing is subject to pretty similar conditions.

    A great deal depends, I think, on what you call “mass market” publishing – which doesn’t necessarily entail either cheap production or heavy editorial interference

    Yeah, I’m not ruling mass market out. But I haven’t really had much direct experience of it, so I don’t know how well I might get on with it. My book is an odd one, which is why it’s taking me so long, because I want to try and hit a note that is really accessible and really esoteric at the same time. If I can manage something that at least has a good effort at attempting that, then I’ll feel like I’m starting to get somewhere with what I’m doing.

    I’ve been skimming Owen Davies’ Grimoires: A History of Magic Books which is interesting in regard to this topic as he is looking at the popularisation (“democratisation” is his term) of occultism in relation to developments in print technology – something which kicks off in the Eighteenth century and received a huge boost (in the UK at least) in the middle of the Nineteenth century. You can expand this of course into the 1980s, with the arrival of affordable Desktop Publishing and the eventual boom in digital/web publishing.

    I think that’s a really interesting history to trace. There’s the whole thing where grimoires owned by cunning men were considered as the physical repositories of their power, largely due to the illiteracy of many of their clients. I guess talismanic publishing is trying (with varying degrees of success, according to the individual observer) to recapture something of that feeling, which is a hard thing to do in the contemporary publishing landscape.

    I actually really rate Xaonon’s books. I’ve never really got into the Chumbley stuff, but Daniel Schulke’s books have really made a big impression on me. I struggle with the presentation a little, but behind that are some extremely interesting ideas based on an obviously deep and committed personal practice – which is really tactile, and about building relationships with plants and trees, and the practical applications of those relationships. The two Xoanon books currently on my shelf go for not insignificant amounts of money, but both of them physically came into my orbit without money changing hands. I feel a bit of an obligation to that, and want to do my bit to benefit all the parties involved, which feels a much more valuable personal transaction to the monetary one that might have been made. I’ve seen pdfs of both of these books, prior to encountering the physical items, and it really is comparable to the difference between hearing an mp3 on shit headphones, and hearing an OG vinyl pressing through a really good system. Perhaps there are parallels to be drawn with how a soundman’s records are the physical repository of his power…

    I can’t help wondering if one factor in the rise of “talismanic books” is the desire to foster an ethos that “authentic” occultism is the province of a select few – not only those able to afford these productions – but being in the “right circle” in the first place in order to get to know about their existence or at least be thought of as sufficiently of “good report” that a publisher will actually consider selling them a copy in the first place

    It’s a bit shit, but it’s probably driven by the largest demograph who buy occult books and the precariousness of trying to make your living by putting out these publications. I don’t think that anyone really makes much money out of any of this, which perhaps shouldn’t be the case, but it’s a landscape that is unlikely to change any time soon. I would want to avoid all of that contrived exclusivity, because the people I’m most interested in reaching are from a much broader demograph than the established occult community. If I could figure out a way to do that, while not compromising the integrity of the work, it would feel like I’m doing something a bit more worthwhile than just writing for a well-established demograph of “serious occultists” who snap up any instance of limited edition volume just because it exists.

    • Phil Hine
      Posted May 24th 2010 at 10:18 am | Permalink

      I was discussing some of the issues here at the weekend with a couple of friends who have been in the book trade for a long time now, and a few interesting point came out of our conversation. Firstly, that for some customers at least, buying “delux editions” is done as an investment – in the way that one would buy gold or some other durable commodity. Secondly, that these are, after all, not books for practice (i.e. not scribbling notes in the margin) but books to collect – and that their high quality production and “collectability” will ensure that they survive (i.e. not end up gathering dust in a secondhand bookshop or get thrown out). This is an interesting point in itself, because very often it is the luxury book which survives the centuries.

      This led me to rethink the concept of the “talismanic book” as objects of prestige and expressions of power. We know, for example, that books & other forms of text were often worn as “talismans” in the way that one might wear a ring or necklace – and also that books were frequently lavishly produced – written in gold on vellum, decorated with jewels etc., (St Jerome complains about this practice in 384 AD) and it was not uncommon for Bibles to be lavishly produced in order to “impress” the laity. Having a library – especially for the rich and powerful – became a sign of intellectual and political mastery. In the seventeenth century, particularly amongst the gentry classes, one can see emerging the idea that having a large collection of well-bound books was an expression of status, even though learning, primarily, was largely done by conversing with the learned (reflecting a sensibility, even then, that simply amassing a large collection of books was no guarantee of actually learning). Prior to the 15th century in Europe, books had a definite iconic status. They were primarily visual objects, due to their rarity and the even rarer ability to read them. What changed book production was of course the move away from hand-crafted pages brought about by Gutenberg’s printing process (which in turn spurred the growth of literacy). It’s sometimes hard for us moderns to grasp the speed at which printing took off in Europe – for example, one German publisher alone produced over 100,000 copies of Biblical texts between 1534 and 1574.

      Perhaps it might be more useful to think of contemporary “talismanic” occult books as bearing a similar relationship that William Morris’ Arts and Crafts Movement did to the mass-production of books in the nineteenth century? It was these early independent presses which revived interest in preindustrial book production techniques & aesthetics. Perhaps the next step will be a return to handpress-produced books – such as Joel Biroco’s Herculaneum Press.

  6. Joel Biroco
    Posted May 26th 2010 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting discussion. I intended to contribute a few thoughts the other day but was distracted, but now as you have dealt me into the conversation I may as well take the opportunity.

    I certainly regarded hand-set letterpress as a return to something, and talismanic also in that other substances can be mixed with the ink. I can actually be cloned off the first two books from The Herculaneum Press. However, I stopped that practice as it doesn’t exactly improve the ink. Hand-set letterpress means that every page of every book was handled at least three times by myself, and even scrutinised frequently with a loup to check type wear. They were produced in circumstances akin to a backstreet forgery operation. All this to me was personal and, indeed, talismanic. Very few were actually sold, mostly they were given away or bartered for other books. This was the aesthetic. Each page took several hours to set in lead and then, because I didn’t have enough type, had to be dismantled after printing so as another page could be set. In other words, letters were re-used. This may or may not be of interest to those looking for talismanic influences.

    Personally, I don’t see anything necessarily talismanic about a posh book just because its subject matter is the occult. ‘Coffee-table books’, though now so maligned in that expression, were originally the archetype of the posh book. Posh books these days are often printed in China, unfortunately using litho, which is a pity as there are still many great cranky wonky letterpress printers in China. Take for example the books in English from the Foreign Languages Press in Beijing, which you can get in Chinatown and to most eyes are just cheap books, but actually they are charming examples of quirky letterpress printing, at least in the wonderful books by Lu Hsun (Lu Xun) that I have. In other words, ‘talismanic’ is not to do with ‘quality’, it is to do with aesthetic. So you have to ask yourself what is really the aesthetic of the current crop of expensive occult ‘premium’ books. Basically, it is to price the book for collectors with money, ensuring people like me rarely actually see any of these books. It is also to promote a certain elitism. No-one can argue with a well-produced book. But the ‘average book’ of the 1950s, printed letterpress, was such a book. They are now talismanic, in their own way, even a bit of foxing has its own charm so long as one is not a collector/investor, but rather just a person who wants a book that feels good solely to read.

    • Phil Hine
      Posted May 27th 2010 at 6:30 am | Permalink

      I certainly regarded hand-set letterpress as a return to something, and talismanic also in that other substances can be mixed with the ink.

      Joel, one of the key selling-points around which the contemporary notion of the “talismanic book” are being punted is that they are hand-bound, which makes them “magical objects” in a way that books which emerge from say, a Xerox DocuTech production process are not. Hand-binding seems to imply, for some people, that these books themselves transmit a magical current or intent.* Given this predeliction for pre-industrial processes, hand-set letterpress seems an obvious direction to go in, although doing something like Chimbley’s Azoëtia on letterpress would be a gargantuan task indeed. I have a friend who not only binds books, but also mixes his own inks and makes his own paper (where possible out of local materials) which to my mind is definitely talismanic. He is not making a commercial product for sale though (he’s an environmental educationalist who teaches groups of children in these arts) however, I do wonder if there is a sense that – for an object to be considered “magical” it has to be differentiated from other types of commodity.

      (* hopefully the intent is something more substantial than “buy this book”.)

      • Joel Biroco
        Posted May 27th 2010 at 7:18 am | Permalink

        Well it’s interesting that you say that hand-binding is ‘one of the key selling points’. It seems hard to escape the commercial aspect. Strikes me that the whole thing is somewhat talked up, in that people are trying too hard to produce talismanic books, as a product. Is there not a reverse talismanic effect — dissipation — of making such an object a mere commodity? To me, too much deliberation in anything goes against the grain. I didn’t, for instance, set out to produce talismanic books. Any talismanic qualities they may have is purely a side-effect of the process, which was one of love for doing it this way. Well, I like a well-made book as much as anyone, but if it all becomes a little too precious then it starts to come apart at the seams. I may even start judging the book by its content…

    • Gyrus
      Posted May 27th 2010 at 10:05 am | Permalink

      Joel hits another nail on the head: ‘aesthetics’, not expense-measured ‘quality’.

      I remember being sent a book by Bella Basura, which she’d hand-made as part of her commitment to and love for the DIY publishing ethic. A beautiful thing, and very far from high-cost exclusivity (even though very few copies exist).

      And just recently, I got a very rare jolt of ol’-fashioned lo-fi print thrills when I checked my post box and found a copy of Peter Lamborn Wilson’s odd Atlantis Manifesto, a little pamphlet craft-printed on handmade paper in Kathmandu. I went straight to Foyle’s cafe and read it in a deep state of slow-moving attention – certainly inspired as much by the form as by the content. I guess the fact that I wouldn’t have been mortified if I spilt my coffee on it probably added to its special feel. It had a preciousness that I wasn’t too precious about to thoroughly enjoy.

  7. Joel Biroco
    Posted May 27th 2010 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    I might also add that Hakim Bey’s Gestetnered Communiqués, sent out by mail in the 80s, were talismanic in a way that expensive occult books are not. Maybe you remember his Black Djinn Curse.

    • Phil Hine
      Posted May 27th 2010 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

      Maybe you remember his Black Djinn Curse.

      Of course I do. The 1980s was the era of samisdat publishing – fanzines, the APAs, occult “chapbooks” and so forth – and as the 80s progressed, there seemed to be an almost endless proliferation of occult small press ‘zines catering for every taste and angle – lots of people knocking stuff out, often with just a big wad of letraset and access to a photocopier. I used Chumbawamba’s printing press for years, ‘cos they were cheap and local. Another thing that interests me in regard to the “talismanic books” thing is that its being widely trumpeted as “revolutionary” and (ocassionally) as a “grassroots” movement – two words which don’t sit easily together, for me, with this approach to publishing. I’m far more interested in what the Concord Free Press are doing:

      We publish great books and give them away. All we ask is that you make a voluntary donation to a charity or someone in need. Tell us about it. Then pass your book along so others can give. It’s a new kind of publishing, one based purely on generosity, and it’s changing the way people think about books.

      • Joel Biroco
        Posted May 27th 2010 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

        I also think it’s a bit presumptuous of ‘talismanic publishers’ to regard all of their books as ‘talismanic’, as a given, as if ‘talismanic’ were a printing process. I mean, who says it’s talismanic? If I buy an old Daoist coin sword in a junk shop and the red string is coming off so the thing comes open and I discover a red on yellow talisman hidden inside, then that is a definite talisman. Do these books have sigils hidden under the marbled papers? Is it talismanic simply because a craftsman has hand-bound it? If that is the case, then that smacks of pretentiousness and making a false claim to add ‘interest’ to a book aimed at a particular market. It means nothing. It is hype. Any talismanic effect that may have been present in hand-crafting is destroyed by making it a routine affectation. In the non-occult world of fine printing there are still plenty of people making hand-bound letterpress books. The word talismanic is never used, it would seem cheap for such a book to announce itself that way. If it is talismanic, let the owner discover it as an incidental joy. I think we are doing a grand job here of destroying the notional talismanic value of these high-blown occult books. And I think we should, as isn’t this just another case of the ‘recuperation’ of a word (in the Situationist sense). If a book is talismanic, possesses magical properties of its own as an object, then that is a wondrous thing. I just don’t think we should be routinely told such lies about books as a tacit assumption that we should buy into.

        • Phil Hine
          Posted May 27th 2010 at 4:32 pm | Permalink


          Scarlet Imprint describe their books as “faberge handgrenades”.

          • Joel Biroco
            Posted May 27th 2010 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

            That’s allowable. But I’d have to actually read one to know whether it would explode anything in my mind or just impress the dinner guests.

  8. Phil Hine
    Posted May 28th 2010 at 8:50 am | Permalink


    Actually, I think the linking of a book with faberge is quite a telling statement – as it’s linking two luxury products together (the eggs have been to sell a variety of products, from cars to cigarettes). Moreover, a “faberge handgrenade” is never going to have its pin pulled – its basically a useless object, only suitable for being locked away in a museum or collector’s vault. Although we might associate the Faberge brand with superior craftsmanship (Faberge didn’t actually create the eggs himself – his workshop had hundreds of employees, and he would smash any pieces he thought were not up to scratch) and luxury, its also worth recalling that they were produced for the Russian Imperial family, who surrounded themselves with wealth whilst the majority of their subjects were mired in poverty.

    I’d have to actually read one to know whether it would explode anything in my mind or just impress the dinner guests.

    You know, I sat down and had a think about the last time an “occult” book actually “exploded anything in my mind” (as in, a book that really inspired me to go out and do stuff) – it was Starhawk’s Dreaming the Dark which I read in 1986, which led me to go out and organise mass rituals, get interested in networking with other people, do small press publishing, etc, etc.

    • Joel Biroco
      Posted May 28th 2010 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

      I’ve thrown away my ‘occult’ books three times over, later being reinspired and having to buy certain books again, because there was some nagging doubt that I hadn’t exhausted their contents. Crowley’s ‘Vision and the Voice’ is a good example of that. But I don’t think I will be buying it yet again, I got what I wanted out of it, eventually. For me that became the occult book that needed the deepest mining. But any occult book requires interest and belief in the world of appearance, after that fades the immediacy of the birds, flowers, rain, and trees hold the attention more than abstract concepts, dreams, and desires. ‘Dreaming the Dark’ wasn’t a book I would have ordinarily read, but Alistair Livingstone and Pinki appeared to be living their lives by it around the time you read it and so I read it to understand where they, and others, were coming from. Surprisingly inspiring book. I dunno whether it would interest me now, though, but I can say that about many books.

      Should I understand your analysis of ‘faberge handgrenade’ as a disguised expression of an otherwise unexpressed loathing for Scarlet Imprint and everything it stands for? I’d have to distance myself from that, as I don’t know their work at all. But you may as well say what you want to say, if it goes any further. No point keeping anything back. But then I’ve always enjoyed cat fights.

      • Joel Biroco
        Posted May 28th 2010 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

        Someone had to light the blue touchpaper and stand back. I can’t be the only one curious to know which ‘talismanic publisher’ inspired this thread in the first place.

        • Phil Hine
          Posted May 28th 2010 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

          Should I understand your analysis of ‘faberge handgrenade’ as a disguised expression of an otherwise unexpressed loathing for Scarlet Imprint and everything it stands for?


          Not them in particular, I just picked up on that phrase when I was visiting various self-identified “talismanic publishing” websites and thought it’d be interesting to think through some of the implications of that kind of hype.

          Thus far, no one has turned up here to argue the case “for” as it were, so I think I’ll leave it for now.

  9. Lionel
    Posted May 30th 2010 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Since working with Robert Ansell I’ve been interested in the idea of talismanic books – or rather the term captured the essence of something I’ve sensed and valued but not given name to.

    When I did Thundersqueak I did a signed and numbered sub-edition that involved special paper, extra care with the binding and things like silk ribbon and rubbing red ink into the top edge and polishing with beeswax. I really loved the craft feel of that, and the idea was to make them special gifts, though it fizzled out as I forgot the numbers. Later, when the whole first edition was running out and I got an order for a copy I had to dig up what pages I had – a mixture of the ordinary paper and the special paper – so i wrote an apologetic note each time explaining this to those who ordered and pointed out that they were getting a unique product!

    But my one point of divergence with your idea, Phil, is that I don’t see the talismanic bit ending with the production of the book. When you describe the adventures that happened to your Book of Thoth, i see that as part of the talismanic process. A fan of yours would in future years cherish that volume for the associations and the story that have been left their marks on its pages.

    Last month i read a novel The Children of the Book and the opening chapter describes the work of a someone repairing an ancient hagadah in Sarajevo, explaining how their job is not to remove old stains so much as to analyse them for clues to the book’s provenance and make sure that the ‘restoration’ work does not erase the book’s history but rather preserve it for the future. It was a gripping account – the best bit of the book.

    I too have been struck by the recent rush of talismania, but i find the Internet so unsensual that the tactile bit does make a lot of sense (literally) to me. For example – if I misread the CAPTCHA code when posting this, will my words be so ephemeral as to vanish into the ether? So i copy them first just in case!

  10. KaosCrow
    Posted June 5th 2010 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    An absolutely fascinating conversation as to the pros and cons(!) of the talismanic book trade and I can certainly see your points Phil and Joel. That these books are aimed at an elitist market, as in only those that can afford them I would actually tend to disagree with. Yes, they are pricey at around £50 a pop but they are produced as an art form. You try and buy an original piece of art for less than £50. I suppose you could counter that the art world is elitist too but in my mind a well produced book has a more profound use than a picture on your wall. Horses for courses and all.
    As an object of beauty that contains information in a form that will, if produced well, last for potentially hundreds of years these books are fantastic. I own several of Scarlet Imprint’s books and my wife has just purchased me the latest ‘XVI’ as a birthday present and my wife and I, whilst not poor, certainly aren’t rich. However, put it into perspective one of these books costs the same as a night out on the razz or about 8 packs of fags or a full tank of petrol (if you’ve got a small car!) All of these are disposable, ephemeral, whereas a book will last. You can collect them, allow others to borrow them, read them, absorb the knowledge and leave them to future generations. So long as the content is worth preserving, and so far the content of the Scarlet Imprint books has been excellent, then there’s value and more importantly magick. Books of any kind are magickal in and of themselves, able to affect deep changes in those that read them and by extension in the world. Isn’t it worth taking this a step further sometimes and creating something artful and specifically filled with this intent?
    It’s great that mass market books are so freely and cheaply available and that everyone has access to pretty much any knowledge they want but I also think it’s fantastic that one is still able to come accross and possess something produced with art and conviction. If it’s just a con and a way of making money, well so be it, it’s no more a con than the price of fuel, beer or fags and I know what I’d rather spend my hard earned cash on. If I didn’t think they were worth it I wouldn’t buy them and so far I haven’t been dissapointed. No one is forcing anyone to buy these things. Also as decent magickians if you desire to own one of these or read the contents what’s stopping you? You ought to be able to manifest one in some way surely?
    I have to say that I’m probably quite biased as I am a librarian by profession, so books are an important part of my life. I’m also a bit of a hoarder of them myself. Not just for me, but for my friends and family. I think it vitally important that there are repositories, public and private, of knowledge because when it all comes crashing down we’re going to need them!


    • Joel Biroco
      Posted June 6th 2010 at 4:15 am | Permalink

      Whether or not I am a decent magician is open to question, but that I have had no desire to own one of these books or read their contents ought to be obvious. Perhaps it is my talismanic-book repellent in action.

      • KaosCrow
        Posted June 8th 2010 at 12:04 am | Permalink

        Fair enough. Just thought I’d offer my thoughts from a different perspective and play Devil’s advocate really. Couldn’t resist the almost dare to argue the case for either. Books are just something that really get me going! (By the way, I’m still poring over that Kaos 14 of yours. Now that’s pretty talismanic!)

        Happy reading.


  11. Robert Ansell
    Posted June 28th 2010 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    A fascinating thread indeed…

    Last September at the Seattle Esoteric Book Conference, I was asked to outline my thoughts towards what constitutes a ‘talismanic book’. As the co-founder of Fulgur I guess people expected me to cite high-quality materials and ‘hand-made’ production etc, but amongst my list of ‘talismanic’ highlights of the last 100 years was the first edition of Pete Carroll’s Liber Null and the first issues (1950s) of Kenneth and Steffi Grant’s Carfax Monographs – printed by W.H. Smith on cheap card. To my mind, ‘talismanic’ books need not be expensive, hand-crafted or exude luxury… they can indeed be ‘lo-fi’ or home-spun, even ephemeral. However, to my mind, the one thing they cannot be is ubiquitous.

    Perhaps anyone who has worked in a circle, given birth to an altar, or employed a sigil has recognised (to a greater or lesser degree) the magical importance of defining a boundary between the sacred and profane, or if you prefer, between ‘differance’ and ‘repetition.’ In a fundamental way, I think this boundary is also an experiential one, because our perception of the sacred is often marked not by chronos, but by kairos.

    In many respects, the elaborate instructions associated with traditional talisman production are attempts to create something ‘significantly distinctive’ or rare, primarily as a means of empowering purpose. In an age of mass production and mass consumption my aim in producing ‘talismanic’ books has been an attempt to evoke nuanced and qualitative magical experiences for readers that work in parallel to reading the text. Thus, opening an author’s book should be akin to entering their circle of conjuration. To my mind methods that highlight rarity, such as letterpress or hand-binding, serve to emphasise haecceity, and thus the unique and potentially ‘sacred’ qualities of the object and the space it enfolds. And as has been noted in this thread, older material, particularly if now scarce, is sometimes rendered ‘talismanic’ through nostalgia for an era held to be different from the ubiquitous Now.

    And I can only agree with you Joel on your insightful comment regarding publishers who regard all their books as ‘talismanic’ – it’s pure hype and as you observe, self-defeating, for the reasons given above. Unfortunately, and in complete reversal from when Fulgur started, these days to label a book ‘talismanic’ is a proven marketing methodology.

    • Phil Hine
      Posted June 29th 2010 at 4:59 pm | Permalink


      You’ve raised some interesting points. I can see the relationship you’ve highlighted between elaborate instructions (talismans) or production techniques (books) and haecceity in the creation of something unique – and thence “potentially” sacred. However, the equation between rarity/uniqueness and sacredness is, I think, a relatively recent one – as indeed, is the (Durkheimian) concept of a “hard boundary” between the sacred and profane – certainly medieval European ideas about sacred-profane distinctions were a lot more fluid than we often give them credit for. Whilst there are signs in medieval magical texts that a circle had a “protective” function – particularly in respect to demons, i don’t think this necessarily makes it synonymous with defining a boundary between “sacred space” and the profane – although that’s certainly how it tends to be seen nowadays.

      Moreover, I don’t agree that “In many respects, the elaborate instructions associated with traditional talisman production are attempts to create something ‘significantly distinctive’ or rare, primarily as a means of empowering purpose.” Were talismans valued primarily for their “distinctiveness” in the medieval period? Granted it’s easy to infer this from the lengthy instructions in say, The Picatrix. Production of talismans, arguably, required a much more elite skill-set than, say, the production of textual amulets – knowledge of astrology, lapidary, access to magical texts themselves. But I wonder, when we read, nowadays, the elaborate instructions for creating talismans in a medieval magical text, are we just grappling with an unfamiliar – and perhaps to modern eyes – unfashionable degree of orthopraxis towards procedure which was very much an element of medieval life? Further, talismans & amulets seem to be fairly ubiquitous in the medieval era. Gutenberg, before he got around to printing, spent some time working on a technique for mass-producing pilgrim badges for the pilgrimage to Aachen. These badges were both souvenirs for returning pilgrims but also – like many other classes of magical object, were believed to transfer or contain the power of the place where they originated or represented. Also important was the knowledge that the owners or keepers of a pilgrimage site had pressed the badges against the relic, shrine or image that they were intended to commemorate. Naturally, they were also in demand from people who hadn’t actually undertaken a pilgrimage. One source I came across notes that in 1466, 130,000 badges were sold in a fortnight at the Swiss monastery of Einsiedeln. Granted, pilgrim badges are not quite the same as talismans – or even amulets – but they indicate, I think the widespread belief in the power of, and usage of these objects.

    • Joel Biroco
      Posted June 30th 2010 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

      You say a talisman cannot be ubiquitous. I wonder whether this is actually a truth, or just a perceived idea. Isn’t it the case that the most powerful talisman in existence is in everyone’s pocket? Money. A clean crisp fifty has a lot more talismanic power than a grubby fiver stuck with sellotape though, so perhaps there is some truth in the ubiquity theory.

      May I never find a use for the word ‘haecceity’.

      Here’s an idea for increasing the talismanic power of your books: give some away for nothing to powerful magicians. The mere glancing of their eyes upon your pages will be worth more than the weight of the book in gold. Whereas the refusal of said powerful magicians to part with the talisman of money in exchange for the talisman of book may prove detrimental to sales, since those books ‘lack the glance’.

  12. Gypsy Lantern
    Posted July 1st 2010 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Did WH Smith really do the first print run of the Carfax Monographs?!?

  13. Robert Ansell
    Posted July 3rd 2010 at 10:29 am | Permalink


    The ‘goldrush’ phenomenon you cite for Aachen pilgrim badges is very interesting, and those sales figures extraordinary. From what I can gather, the badges seem more akin to our souvenirs than talismans, but as you suggest, it demonstrates the widespread belief in such things. I wonder though, the badges may have been ubiquitous, but surely they signify something rare? Charlemagne’s sacred relics were so ‘significantly distinctive’ many thousands of people valued them highly enough to travel hundreds of miles in pilgrimage. In fact, they were being seen by so many people it became customary to show the great relics once every seven years, and this is still the case today. I must say, this sounds like a ‘limited edition’ of sorts, creating a significant moment distinct in the passage of time. I note too that the growth of trade in badges became so exploited it was eventually regulated by law and Episcopal degrees which produced a class of ‘licensed’ sellers. These offered buyers a guarantee their badges had ‘touched’ the relics, in distinction one might presume, to those which had not. Arguably, this sounds much like a medieval ‘hard boundary’ between the sacred and profane, if primarily for the benefits of commerce.

    That said, the medieval mindset it is not my speciality, but I do wonder if their elaborate orthopraxis is really so unfamiliar? I suspect if someone asked you to write out the individual steps that ultimately rendered your Book of Thoth ‘talismanic’ the process might seem quite particular, complex and perhaps on occasion, random. The book itself is quite commonplace, but the slow patina of associations clearly signify something to you that is valuable enough for the book to survive a series of culls. I guess we all have something similar, mine is that 1970s Octopus book ‘Magic, Witchcraft and the Supernatural’ which even now it holds great nostalgia for me. We might agree these experiences are in some sense an ‘initiation into the mysteries’, but perhaps these mysteries are our own?


    I like a good metaphor, and to extend your well observed example: which is more talismanic: a crisp fifty, or ten crisp fivers? They both signify the same value of cash, but because we don’t see a fifty often (or – ever – in my case) it seems somehow more distinctive and potent.

    Forgive me, but ‘haecceity’ is a bit of a limited edition word isn’t it? At least, you don’t see it often. I wonder… do rare words seem more magical than those in common usage? Spare certainly thought so, although I think when rare words become commonplace the writer can look a bit of a twat.

    Gypsy Lantern

    Yes, in the days when W.H. Smith was a proper stationer with printing presses to print stationary. Steffi said it was ‘devilishly hard’ to find anyone after the War who would do it, particularly the Crowley number.

  14. Venger Satanis
    Posted July 27th 2010 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

    The more attention drawn to such Talismanic Books, as you’ve done here, Mr. Hine, the more power they will obtain. There is a resurgence in this phenomenon, but I’m glad to see it. Different books for different magicians.

    If an occult tome is truly worthy of being studied, then I assume it will take three forms in this 21st century of ours: free PDF, inexpensive “mass market”, and beautiful collector’s edition. After all… why not?

    Ia Ia Cthulhu fhtagn,