A trip to go poking through the stacks at Half-Price Books is always a mixed-bag. Sometimes you walk out with a sigh, empty handed, but sometimes the excursion yields a perfect little gem to snatch up and gleefully paw your way through. Such was the case the day I found "The Wordsworth Dictionary of the Occult" by Andre Nataf (paperback edition, 1994, Wordsworth Editions, Ltd. $3.98). (This is a "new" book, one of the obvious overstock-purchases they seem to make regularly--they had a small stack of 'em--grab one!)
Originally published in French as "Les Maitres de I'occultisme" in 1988, this handy little volume is packed with good information, clearly and intelligently presented. The book is divided into three sections: The Nature of Occultism, Masters of Occultism, and Examples of Occult Thought in Literature.
Each entry is concise, informative and well-written. There are "gray boxes" containing additional related information for nearly every entry, and a smattering of decent illustrations.
Although obviously not intended to be read cover-to-cover, it is actually a good read, if taken in that manner. The first section, The Nature of Occultism, is an alphabetical journey through some of the basic symbols and principles of hermetic thought and philosophy, with entries for everything from Agartha to The Tree. Nataf's writing style is clear and engaging; you want to keep reading. I read through the first section in the matter of an afternoon and learned a lot. In particular, I found out that my own, rough-hewn, self-taught approach to "magick" seems to coincide with the definition of alchemy that Nataf so eloquently delineates on pages six and seven. The other entries, as well, are filled with knowledge that can come in handy for those inclined towards a magickal lifestyle, not to mention the over-all benefit to be had in gaining some good solid "family" history and a clearer understanding of terms.
The second section, Masters of the Occult, is a "Who's Who" of the bad-asses of alchemy and magick, from Pythagoras and Khalid to Crowley and Gurdjieff. Some of these entries are a bit brief, although (I grudgingly suppose) they do what the entries of a dictionary intend: provide a brief sketch to whet the appetite for further research.
The final section, Examples of Occult Thought in Literature, is another "Who's Who", this time of writers (and literary movements) who have embodied hermetism in their work (I wish his entry for The Surrealists had been longer!). This is followed by a thoughtfully composed glossary which is helpful by honing its definitions to fit the principles of hermetism as Nataf lays them out. Wrap it all up with an extensive index, and you've got a great little book which (at four bucks) is a steal.
My only real complaint about the book is that it's too short.
Nataf's writing leads you to believe that there is much more that could be said, and I see where many more entries could be added to the first section. But don't take this criticism too much to heart--this book is definitely worth having on the reference shelf.
One other thing I found disconcerting about the book was the lack of information about its author. Usually, these guys have at least a half-page of blather about themselves, but there is nary a word to be found about our Mr. Nataf. I (in my typical, twisted way) made the connection that in the early days of printing, the letters "f" and "s" were sometimes used interchangeably in print. Thus, our mysterious "Mr. Nataf" becomes "Mr. Natas". And we all know what that spells backwards, don't we? Isn't that special?