Friday, February 11, 2011

A Discovery of Witches, Deborah Harkness novel, Alchemy, Book Collecting, and Further Reading

I collect books about alchemy with an emphasis on building a significant, interesting and varied section of my private library rather than on collecting rare, and often one of a kind, priceless manuscripts.  Alchemy is a fascinating subject area for book collecting.  The long history of alchemical works is essential for our understanding the evolution of science and ideas.  The history of alchemy provides insight into early and medieval science, especially chemistry, and continues today to be a controversial topic for the modern scientific community where the importance of the history of alchemical traditions is of great interest to historians of science and ideas and despised by contemporary scientists.  Alchemy, outside the formal constructs of empirical science, continues to offer a rich source of ideas, settings and characters for art and literature.
A new work of fiction, soon to be a breakout bestseller, has just been published, A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness.  She is a serious scholar, Professor of History, University of Southern California, specializing in the history of science and ideas with a focus on the period, 1400-1700. A Discovery of Witches is her first novel but she is a veteran author with two scholarly books in print, John Dee’s Conversations with Angels: Cabala, Alchemy, and the End of Nature (Cambridge University Press, 1999) and The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution (Yale University Press, 2007).

A Discovery of Witches promises to be a gripping read, if early reviews are to be believed, revolving around the discovery of a lost and important alchemical manuscript in the Bodleian Library, Oxford by a witch, who finds a partner, support, protection and love from a vampire.  Who wouldn't fall for a novel including a witch, a vampire and a rare book? 

When ordering a copy for myself via, I noticed a list of 10 books, suggested by the author, as background sources for those interested in a better understanding of alchemy, magic, witchcraft and vampires.  I'm familiar with all the books on her list and own a few myself.  While that list is a fine starting place, I would like to suggest a short list of my own on just the history of alchemy. 

The Alchemist in Life Literature and Art, John Read (Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd, London, 1947).  Read, then Professor of Chemistry, University of Saint Andrews, Scotland, offers an introduction to alchemy and the alchemist from the viewpoint of art and literature, prior to the rise of modern chemistry in the second half of the 18th century.  Read states in his Preface:  "This subject, so full of fascination for the discerning man of science as well as for the lover of literature and art, has received surprisingly little attention, possibly because it calls for a blending of interest often wrongly supposed to be as hard to immingle as oil and water."  This wonderful short introduction is still available on the used book market for less than $50.00.

Darke Hierogliphicks:  Alchemy in English Literature from Chaucer to the Restoration, Stanton J. Linden (University Press of Kentucky, 1996).  Linden, at the time, Associate (now Emeritus) Professor of English, Washington State University traces the portrayal of alchemy across 300 years of literature, roughly 1386-1685, with an emphasis on the impact of the alchemist as portrayed by writers from Shakespeare to Milton and beyond.

A very brief introduction to alchemy is The Alchemist's Kitchen:  Extraordinary Potions and Curious Notions by Guy Ogilvy (Walker Publishing, New York, 2006).  The author is described in the flap copy as "a leading alchemical researcher, writer, and practicing alchemist."  An introduction to the historical practice of alchemy, it is wonderfully illustrated with woodcuts and engravings of alchemical practice and the alchemist's world.  Perhaps best, is the warning on the copyright page, "Caveat:  Alchemy can be extremely dangerous.  Explosions and poisonings are commonplace.  Some of the processes described in this book may be unlawful in some jurisdictions; they are performed at your own risk."

One of the most useful books on alchemy from my library is A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery, Lyndy Abraham (Cambridge University Press, 1998).  Abraham at the time, a research fellow in English at the University of New South Wales, mined the Ferguson Collection at the University of Glasgow to illustrate this traditional and comprehensive dictionary of alchemical imagery.  Ferguson, who amassed a huge collection of books on the occult and magic, complied and published the most amazing bibliography of books of secrets ever published, Bibliographical Notes on Histories of Inventions and Books of Secrets (Holland Press 1959, 1981, and now print on demand).

The last book I suggest is The Secret Art of Alchemy, Stanislas Klossowski de Rola (Thames and Hudson, London, 1973).  Today, the study of alchemy may be divided into 2 basic pursuits.  The first and most formal is in line with modern science, seeks to understand alchemy as precursor to modern chemistry and considers alchemy important as a subject of study within the history of science and ideas.  Tangential to that is the related study of alchemy as seen through art and literature.  The second and generally controversial pursuit (the more amusing) is the quest to understand alchemy to acquire secret insight and knowledge of man, nature and the cosmos (and turn led into gold).  The general tradition of the second pursuit is the focus of The Secret Art of Alchemy.  The author, Prince Stanislas de Rola is quite a character, "friend of The Beatles and Stones, exotic dandy, actor, musician and son of artist Balthus – a genuine enigma."

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