A bookish ramble

Magic and Mystery

cover of Magic and MysteryA friend passed this very old, battered copy of Magic and Mystery in Tibet my way amongst others she was discarding recently. I found it fascinating as an historical artifact and impressive in an intrepid-traveller kind of way.

The author, Alexandra David-Neel, was part of the early Western engagement with Asian religion, along with the theosophists (whom she knew well).

The book was first published about 1930 (this copy is a 1960s republication) and relates what she saw in the Himalayas about 1912-1926. During that period she got to Lhasa, in disguise, and wrote about it; and in fact this book sometimes reads like a collection of bits that wouldn’t fit into My Journey to Lhasa (which I haven’t seen but would like to).

It’s clear that she had a solid grounding in Buddhism (primarily Theravada) before going to the Himalayas and that she was a serious practitioner. A friend of an online friend asked an English speaking pre-PRC Tibetan which western author best captured what old Tibet was like, and he said Alexandra David-Neel. She certainly had an extraordinary life!

Having read Magic and Mystery, I can guess where Lost Horizon was coming from and where ‘Lobsang Rampa‘ (warning: long read) found his source material, but it’s also great context for the post-diaspora Western vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhist) tradition.

Enough books?

When I thanked my real-life friend for her books  she said:

You are welcome. Some are too tatty for op shops while still interesting content e.g. Magic and Mystery. It’s good if someone finds anything in them before they make the great voyage back to paper pulp or compost.
There are more to be sorted. I’m resisting the urge to reread stuff before it goes, as I won’t get through it all before death even at an advanced age.

That last sentence made me wonder whether I, like her, had a lifetime’s supply of books on my shelves (it wouldn’t do to run out, would it?) so I counted – measured, actually.

Forty metres of shelved books (counting double-shelved books as double distance, of course) at 45 books/metre (both figures are +/- 10% which is near enough) gives us a total of about 1800 books. At one per day they would only last about five years, which seems barely adequate, but it gets worse! Seventeen metres of the 40 are non-fiction and about half of that is reference, i.e., no good for reading unless you’re really desperate.*

So make that four years, not five. On the other hand, reading one book per day wouldn’t leave much time for anything else. Two per week is more reasonable, isn’t it? At that rate they would last nearly fifteen years. That’s surely enough of a buffer against booklessness. So that’s all right.

*How desperate?

Perhaps this desperate:

…I didn’t go to sleep. Truth is, I’ve got a monkey on my back, a habit worse than marijuana though not as expensive as heroin … The fact is, I am a compulsive reader. Thirty-five cents worth of Gold Medal Original will put me right to sleep. Or Perry Mason. But I’ll read the ads in an old Paris-Match that has been used to wrap herring before I’ll do without.

It comes from a highly unlikely source.** It’s not quite so old or as battered as the Magic and Mystery which prompted this little ramble and it has just earned its right to stay on my bookshelf for a few more years. So that’s all right, too.

**Glory Road

cover of Heinlein's Glory RoadSF cover art*** is a genre unto itself. Those who don’t know it may have difficulty believing that this example is more tasteful and less improbable than many, but it is.

Heinlein’s yarn is, fundamentally but oddly, rather conventional and even moralistic. It is, however, every bit as swashbuckling as the cover suggests.

So that’s all right, too.


Some would argue that SF cover art doesn’t deserve to be called art at all. Here’s a small sample of it so that you can decide for yourself; if you click on it, you will find a larger selection. You will probably get a good laugh out of it, and that’s all right, too, but some publishers did employ seriously good artists**** so it’s not all laughable.

Tsf cover art examplesThe road goes ever on …

… and who knows where it may lead?

In this case it has led, after some months, to more SF cover art, and to creative alterations to it discovered by another friend of mine.

On the left, the altered version; on the right, the original. It’s one of many. The creator has a good eye for typographical design but I have to say that his (that’s a guess) language and sense of humour are both, let’s say, earthy. If you don’t mind that, click on through to mobile.twitter.com/these_books for more.

Baphomet’s Meteor itself dates to 1972, nearly ten years after Glory Road (1963) but it inhabits the same shadowy realm between science fiction and fantasy. Among the small text on that pink and golden cover, in fact is “science fantasy”.

Barbet’s story makes the devil supposedly worshipped (warning: long read) by the Knights Templar into a stranded extraterrestrial who provides them with atomic weaponry, so the cover is quite faithful to the book.

****Tanguy at Penguin

J. G. Ballard’s  New Wave masterpiece The Drowned World (1962) and Hal Clement’s pioneering work of hard SF, Mission of Gravity (1954) were both graced with Tanguy’s canvases. Penguin regularly used the work of famous mainstream artists–for example, Max Ernst (I identified ten covers). China Miéville’s novella “The Last Days of New Paris” (2018) also uses a Tanguy/Lamba/Breton exquisite corpse collage…

That quote comes from a blog by someone who clearly loves SF and art as much as I do. Anyone still reading me now might do worse than hop over to it at sciencefictionruminations.com.

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