Books for an Autumn Evening: Nonfiction

I recommended earlier this week books appropriate for reading on a fall evening. It was 85 degrees on the day I wrote about pumpkins and cider and all things autumnal. I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, not a sweater, and the tea I was drinking was iced.

The weather has since then improved. A front blew through, bringing with it colder temperatures and hints of autumn. The leaves are starting to turn. Tacky Halloween decorations are beginning to pop up on suburban lawns. Pumpkin spice is in everything, everywhere, all the time. Addicts are doing lines of it off of the mirrors in Dunkin’ Donuts’ restrooms.

He's pretty scary. The guy on the right is creepy, too.

He’s pretty scary. The guy on the right is creepy, too.

To celebrate the newly seasonal…er…season…I proffer a list of nonfiction books to read on a fall evening, vaguely grouped by topic.

The paranormal. Fringe-ology, Steve Volk; Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts, and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture, Christopher Bader, F. Carson Mencken, Joseph O. Baker; Seeking Spirits: The Lost Cases of the Atlantic Paranormal Society, Jason Hawes, Grant Wilson, Michael Jan Friedman.

These books on the paranormal run the gamut from the silly to the academic. As you might expect, Seeking Spirits is a breathless account of TAPS‘ further encounters with ghosts and goblins; it opens with one authors’ encounter with some sort of forest spirit, which sets the tone for the rest of the book. Paranormal America is a serious attempt by sociologists to understand “the paranormal” as a fringe religious phenomenon. Bader, Mencken and Baker shed much-needed light on the paranormal beliefs of average Americans, but the presentation (group x believes this about this, group y believes this…) becomes repetitious. I recommend Volk’s Fringe-ology. Volk investigates several phenomena, some of which he’s able to explain and some of which remain mysteries. I wrote a longer review for Geekadelphia.

Ghosts. Will Storr vs. the Supernatural: One Man’s Search for the Truth about Ghosts, Will Storr; Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead, Christine Wicker; Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, Mary Roach.

Mary Roach (Gulp, Stiff, Bonk…which sounds like one of my Saturday nights, hey-o!) is the elephant in the room. Roach’s signature style involves the popularization of science through pithy jokes, a tack that gained her an audience but I was never able to get past. In Spook, Roach seeks scientific evidence of the afterlife; unsurprisingly, the results are ambiguous. Wicker, formerly a religion correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, admirably describes her trip to Lily Dale, New York, the last bastion of spiritualism. I recommend Will Storr’s investigation of ghosts, which is an honest portrayal of a skeptic’s inquiry into his most deeply held beliefs.

Possession and exorcism. American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty, Michael W. Cuneo; The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, Matt Baglio.

Surprising as it may be, belief in demonic possession and the power of exorcism in on the rise not only in the United States but throughout the West. Cuneo examines the penetration of the practice of exorcism into Protestant denominations, which have traditionally eschewed it. His account reads like a memoir, and it’s clear that he pities the “believers.” Baglio’s book follows an American priest as he is trained by an Italian exorcist. The Church apparently runs conferences on exorcism, and the Italian exorcist was barely able to keep up with demand for his services. Conclusion: There are a lot of people who believe that the devil is intimately involved in their lives.

Salem witchcraft. Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England, John Putnam Demos; The Devil’s Dominion: Magic and Religion in Early New England, Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692, Richard Godbeer.

Few events in early American history are as indelibly imprinted on students’ mind as the Salem witch trials. Scholars have for decades puzzled over the causes of the panic. Putnam’s tome, and it is a brick, approaches the events through a variety of lenses, including sociological, psychological, and so on, and is probably better for readers with a background in the period. The same might be said for Godbeer’s book The Devil’s Dominion, which definitively demonstrated that the upright Puritans believed in (and practiced) magic, too. (Sidenote: Godbeer wins the best surname contest, hands-down.) Readers hoping to get a feel for the period and the nature of witchcraft belief are better off picking up Escaping Salem, which tells the story of a failed witch hunt.

Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural, Jim Steinmeyer. If you’ve read this far, you’re probably familiar with the adjective “Fortean,” which refers to strange and inexplicable events. Fort spent his life documenting the weird, including fish and frogs falling from empty skies. This is a serviceable, if brief, biography that will give you a sense of the flavor of Fort’s writings, and perhaps inspire you to do a bit of your own research.


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