curmudgeonly advice

24 Books Every Beginning Witch Should Read

I’ve been practicing the Craft nearly my entire life. And one of the first questions I hear from interested beginners is “What should I read?”

Here are the books that have stuck with me for years or decades, the ones I come back to whenever I have particular questions or when I’m looking for some guidance. Most are not listed in any particular order, because they can be read in basically any order. Some can even be skipped if you are not hot on, say, hermeticism, or on creative writing. 

Start with whatever appeals to you most. Or don’t. I’m not your mom.

Image: A yellow square featuring the title of this post and the site URL. The left-hand side of the square shows bookshelves filled with assorted books.

In the Beginning

Marion Green, A Witch Alone: Thirteen Moons to Master Natural Magick

Possibly the best single-volume introduction to the practice of witchcraft ever written. It’s precise enough to provide guidance, but vague enough that you can fill in the gaps with your own interests, curiosities, and/or reasons for being interested in witchcraft. Actually finishing the thirteen months of work recommended in this book will give you a solid foundation in neo-Pagan ideas generally and in the practice of modern witchcraft, specifically.

T. Thorn Coyle, Evolutionary Witchcraft

If I have one problem with Marion Green’s A Witch Alone, it’s that the book is starting to feel a bit dated. Coyle’s Evolutionary Witchcraft solves that problem. While it’s focused more specifically on Feri practices, Evolutionary Witchcraft provides guidance that’s easily transferred to any number of other settings. It’s also a wonderfully honest look at how witchcraft lives within the fully human life of its author.

Margot Adler, Drawing Down the Moon

Drawing Down the Moon remains one of the best overviews of the history of modern witchcraft in print today. Not being a professional historian of modern witchcraft (or anything else), I can’t vouch for every detail, but neither do I recall finding anything in this book that was utterly wrong or ridiculous, either. Save yourself the embarrassment of the “nine million witches died in the Burning Times while the Christians stole all our good ideas” phase so many beginners go through, and read this book instead.

Bronwyn Forbes, Mint Juleps, Mud Pie and Macbeth

Many beginners get interested in witchcraft after seeing how it’s portrayed in fiction. Bronwyn Forbes’s Mint Juleps, Mud Pie and Macbeth is the best depiction of life as a modern witch that I’ve seen in print so far. The downside is that it’s increasingly difficult to find. 

Aleister Crowley, Diary of a Drug Fiend and Moonchild

I recommend reading Crowley’s two novels before anything else the man wrote (and he wrote a lot), because they’re the most accessible ways to see what he’s on about in everything else he’s written. Diary of a Drug Fiend gives a fair account of what Crowley means by True Will in action, while Moonchild demonstrates what it is one might actually do with all those correspondences one memorized (and why there are some things you just don’t do with them, even if they are in theory possible to do).

If you’re disappointed when both these novels end, read Crowley’s Tannhauser and/or his Simon Iff short stories.

Lon Milo Duquette, Chicken Qabbalah and Son of Chicken Qabbalah

If you have even the slightest interest in doing magick, you’re going to need to understand at least a bit of Qabbalah. Don’t ask me, man, I didn’t do it. Chicken Qabbalah and its sequel, Son of Chicken Qabbalah, are the least painful introduction to the subject I’ve yet found. 

Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance 

While not about witchcraft specifically, this book blew a lot of minds when it came out (and still does) with its frank exploration of what it means to do any kind of work well. I especially recommend it as an antidote to the idea that witchcraft and/or magick are all about flashy abilities and wowing your neighbors. Sometimes they’re just about making the motorcycle run really well. 

Related: Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work

David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking

Art & Fear explores how art gets made, how it (more often) doesn’t get made, and the difficulties artists struggle with in the process. 

What this has to do with witchcraft is that the process of making art and the process of practicing the Craft are very often the same practice, fraught with the same sorts of pitfalls. Art & Fear is a short book, but it’s one of the best works available on how to grapple with a practice that forces you to constantly confront yourself.

Related: Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

Digging Deeper

Aleister Crowley, Magick Without Tears and The Book of Thoth

If you’re still interested in whatever Crowley’s on about after Diary of Drug Fiend and Moonchild, Magick Without Tears and The Book of Thoth are perhaps the next most accessible inroads to Crowley’s actual work. And by “most accessible,” I mean “least inaccessible” – they’re still both an absolute bear to read. If you’re not interested after the novels, feel free to skip these. 

Aleister Crowley, The Book of the Law and The Law is For All

Okay, so it’s actually not possible to understand anything Crowley is on about – or more importantly, why – without at least a passing familiarity with The Book of the Law and its contents. The Law is For All was Crowley’s attempt to provide commentary on The Book of the Law; it’s one of those books I recommend reading more than once, at various stages of your witchlife, because what you’re able to get out of it changes as you do. 

Gerald Gardner, Witchcraft Today

A caveat: While I consider Gardner’s works essential for understanding the foundations of modern witchcraft, I (a) do not recommend them as accurate depictions of the history of witchcraft and (b) by no means believe that Gardner’s descriptions of How to Witch are the only ones that work. Gardner, rather, is laying the foundations for a particular type of practice. If you’re interested in it, you’re looking for Wicca. 

Janet and Stewart Farrar, The Witches’ Bible

I’ll level with you: If you’re looking for a complete guide to the practice of Wicca in print, you will never find it. Wicca is an initiatory mystery tradition, which means there are elements of its practice that are only available to initiates (and even then, some of it is only available at certain stages of their practice). But if you’re interested in British Traditional witchcraft specifically and its connection to Wicca, the closest thing you’ll find to a complete guide is The Witches’ Bible. It’s also just a good basic introduction to the relationship between religion and spellwork. 

Starhawk, The Spiral Dance

I confess: I first read The Spiral Dance when I was ten, again when I was fifteen, and again when I was twenty, and each time I thought the book would not hold up. Each time, I was convinced it was a product of the political milieu in which it was written (the late 20th century West Coast), and that it would eventually fade.

I was wrong. The Spiral Dance does, to some extent, read like a product of its time; but to be honest, it should, because it expresses a view of witchcraft that is irrevocably bound to the pressing needs of human life now. If you were attracted to witchcraft for its ethic of service and social justice, The Spiral Dance is a must-read.

Robert Graves, The White Goddess and Sir James George Frazier, The Golden Bough

Both of these books can help readers understand why modern witchcraft is shaped the way it is. The Golden Bough in particular is helpful for understanding Crowley’s works, as Crowley’s thought was heavily influenced by Frazier. Neither book, however, is a good depiction of What Actually Happened in the Past: Both are interpretations of historical and archeological information that take certain liberties in order to conjure up an image of a past where magic lived around every corner. Read with a grain of salt.

Help With Specifics

Richard Smollett, Inner Christianity

Inner Christianity is not a book about witchcraft, nor is it a book written for a witchcraft audience. If you’re coming from a Christian background, however, Inner Christianity is an excellent introduction to the esoteric tradition in Christianity, which has a great deal in common with the practice of witchcraft. For anyone seeking to blend Christian faith with Craft practice, this book is a must. 

Ram Dass, Paths to God

In Paths to God, Ram Dass spends a great deal of time exploring the Ramayana, one of the cornerstone texts of Hinduism, along with sharing anecdotes about his own lifelong spiritual work. The ideas, lessons and surprises he relates are relevant on any spiritual path, however. I recommend this book in particular for the way Ram Dass demonstrates that spiritual growth is a lifelong process, and a lifelong source of peace and humor. 

Bronwyn Forbes, The Small-Town Pagan’s Survival Guide

What it says on the tin. Pagans and witches trying to practice in small towns often find themselves at a disadvantage, especially if they’re used to having more resources nearer at hand. Brownyn Forbes offers a clear-eyed guide to making your Work work for you, no matter where you land. 

Wait, What About…..?

This list omits several books that appear on other witchcraft 101 reading lists. For instance, there’s a complete absence of the works of Scott Cunningham and Raymond Buckland.

I don’t have anything against either Cunningham or Buckland, per se. Cunningham’s work strikes me as more basic than the works on the list above (especially Marion Green), however. As for Buckland, his famous “big blue book” of witchcraft has some glaring errors in it, and it makes more sense to me to steer beginners toward books that don’t force them to unlearn information they absorbed before they had a context to judge its veracity.

I’m not big on telling people not to read a certain book, as a rule. I will say this: Do not assume any one book contains The Entire Truth(TM). No book contains everything you’ll ever need to know about anything. No book can. Pagans are the “people of the Library” because they understand the value of gathering perspectives from a wide range of sources.

For the first year (yes, year) of practice, I recommend doing nothing but reading – not only what’s on this list, but anything else you run across that looks appealing. Get yourself some form of note-taking tool to use as you read: a notebook and pen, a laptop, a voice recorder, whatever works for you. The more you read, the faster you’ll progress in practice.


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satire, fiction and humor

Everything You Never Wanted to Know About the Ferengi

The Ferengi: Arguably Star Trek’s most annoying recurring species, and certainly the greediest, shriekiest of them.

Yet we also seem fascinated with them – and the fascination has only grown after four years of living under the “leadership” of a man who would seem to embody every Ferengi virtue except for the fact that an actual Ferengi would throw him off the top of the Tower of Commerce for having so little lobes for business that he bankrupted his own casino.

Anyway, here are some of my favorite recent queries about the Ferengi, in case there’s anything you didn’t realize you never wanted to know about them.

Image: A blue square featuring the title of this blog post, with bars of gold on the left side.

Why has no one annihilated the Ferengi?

For one thing, they actually have firepower.

More importantly, however, the Ferengi are useful.

Try this: Make a list of every single character and species that approaches Quark wanting something during the 7 seasons of DS9. I haven’t, but I’m estimating there are several dozen.

Also, list what they want. It varies from “fence my illegal goods” to “get me a level 7 security code” to “be Grand Nagus for a few days so I can secretly test whether my son is actually ready to be Grand Nagus” to “store this extra furniture.” The only thing all these people have in common is that they went to Quark with the problem – which means Quark is capable of solving a huge range of weird, difficult, or unusual problems.

Often, he’s capable precisely because he’s Ferengi. Being Ferengi gives him both in-born abilities (like a brain immune to telepathy) and access to people, influence, trade routes and markets that others can’t easily get. If DS9 is the hub of Bajoran space, Quark’s bar is the hub of DS9 – which is precisely why Sisko has no qualms about extorting him to stay.

Quark is just one Ferengi. And he’s not even that impressive a Ferengi. His cousin owns a moon, for commerce’s sake. There are millions, maybe billions, of Ferengi who are better at Ferengi-ing than Quark is, yet even Quark is the only guy in the sector who can solve a dozen different problems before the lunch rush.

You don’t exterminate someone that useful, no matter how annoying they are.

What do the Ferengi do with their riches if they have replication technology that can create almost anything they want?

They create ways to spend it.

We know they spend a lot more on basic services (at least on Ferenginar) than the Federation. In “Body Parts,” Quark says his Ferengi doctor must be great because it costs three slips of latinum just to enter the waiting room. In other episodes set on Ferenginar, we see him paying public officials for information literally by the sentence.

We also know they gamble.

Male Ferengi also have to pay for the entire upkeep of female relatives, who are forbidden by Ferengi law from making a profit. While I imagine one could just install a replicator in one’s wife’s/sister’s/mother’s/maiden aunt’s house and call it good, this would probably be seen as a sign that you don’t respect your own family, or worse, that you haven’t acquired enough to afford to pay for their upkeep.

Remember, there are two competing forces at work in Ferengi society. The first is the desire to enter the Divine Treasury after death, which requires you to have acquired and kept considerable wealth.

The second is to be admired by other Ferengi as an outstanding “acquirer” while you are alive. This is why Ferengi like ostentatious wealth displays: It sends the message that you are so incredibly good at making profits that you can afford to spend on the flashiest clothes/ships/moons without a care in the world for your admittance to the Divine Treasury. Your lobes for business are so formidable that there’s always more profit where that came from.

Finally, the Rules of Acquisition put great pressure on the entire society to keep trying to acquire from one another and especially from any aliens they meet. In order for that game to continue, money has to circulate — which means the Ferengi would require an economy where spending itself was an activity independent of the need for basic survival goods.

My guess is that every Ferengi home has the best replicator its owners could afford, if not a better one. But anything they can buy, they do. The point isn’t to survive; it’s to win the transaction game by extracting the most profit (for sellers) or getting the best bargain (for buyers).

Are the Ferengi the richest and most powerful civilization in the Star Trek world, given that they are the most driven by the pursuit of money?

It’s easiest to address the second point first: They are definitely not the most powerful civilization in the Star Trek universe.

They’re not even the most powerful civilization in the Alpha Quadrant.

In a war between Ferenginar and any one of the Romulan Star Empire, the Klingon Empire, Cardassia or the Federation, Ferenginar will lose. We don’t see a lot of Ferengi diplomats in the series, but I’m guessing a diplomat from any of the four political bodies mentioned here would run circles around a Ferengi diplomat as well.

Ferengi are canny, but they’re canny at only one thing: extracting profit. This makes them easy to understand, which makes them easy to outwit.

Second (first): That depends on your definition of “rich.”

The Ferengi are probably the Star Trek universe’s number-one holders of gold-pressed latinum, which can be classified as “wealth” given that it’s a medium of exchange that (apparently) holds value. By that measure, they might be the wealthiest civilization in the quadrant.

But: Having a lot of money isn’t the only way to be wealthy.

Planets are valuable. (The Ferengi know this; Quark’s brother bought a moon.)

Raw materials are valuable. (Good luck building a warp core out of gold-pressed latinum.)

Basic resources like water and food are valuable. (Cardassia poured 60 years of effort into exploiting Bajor’s basic resources after running through its own.)

Labor-hours are valuable. (Ferenginar prevents half its population from working.)

We see the Ferengi bartering for things like deuterium, implying that they don’t have an endless source of the stuff – which is valuable because it’s scarce and essential to warp travel.

Ferenginar is not a particularly large planet, although it does appear to be amply supplied with rain and tube grubs. Ferenginar is also only one planet, whereas Romulus, Q’onos, Cardassia and Earth are all the seats of multi-planet empires.

Boil down all the resources on all those planets into a dollar amount, including the fact that the Romulans, Klingons, Cardassians and Humans all allow women to work, and any one of those empires could probably buy Ferenginar five times over.

Is there an in-universe explanation as to why the Ferengi acted so erratically when they first appeared in Season One of TNG?

Not explicitly, but if you pay attention to a certain bit of character development given to Quark in DS9, a plausible explanation presents itself.

In “Ferengi Love Songs,” we learn that one of Quark’s favorite childhood toys was his set of Marauder Mo action figures. We also get a fairly good look at a couple of them.

The action figures are dressed much like the Ferengi in TNG’s “The Last Outpost” (in outfits more practical and less flamboyant than those embraced by Ferengi in later episodes). They also carry energy whips like those in “The Last Outpost.”

It’s plausible to assume that the Ferengi that Riker and his team encountered were Marauders. It would also explain why the Ferengi in Enterprises’s “Acquisition” were more like the ones we see in DS9 and Voyager – they were your run of the mill opportunistic Ferengi scavengers, not Marauders.

What were the best Ferengi episodes in any of the Star Trek series?

My favorites are all from DS9. “Little Green Men” is hilarious. So is “Body Parts,” in a darker way (you can see the exact moment Garak decides that not fulfilling Quark’s request to be killed will be more fun, because it’ll leave Quark in a perpetual state of fear). “Bar Association” is among the best-written one-off episodes in all of Trek.

Voyager’s “False Profits” and Enterprise’s “Acquisition” are entertaining too, but they don’t quite reach the standard DS9 set for the Ferengi.

Why is Quark not in prison after all the illegal stuff he has done?

For the same reason Garak did no time for murdering 2/3 of an away team on Empok Nor, but did six months for punching Worf in the face: Federation justice is plot-dependent.


It’s been a long road, getting from there to this nebula. Buy your favorite nerd a raktajino.

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writing

So You Need to Name a Fictional Character

One of the writing questions I get asked most often is “How do you come up with character names?”

Or “can I give two characters similar names?”

Or “I want to name my characters after the seven deadly sins/the four classical elements/models of Ford automobile, but I don’t want it to be obvious, what can I do?”

Or “I hate name generators but I can’t think of a name for this character, what can I do?”

If you’re at a loss what to name a character and you don’t want to use name generators, try this method instead.

First: List all your character’s major traits.

Start by listing your character’s most obvious traits. These can be physical traits, personality traits, quirks, preferences, whatever you like.

For example, the main character in a fantasy story might be:

  • female
  • redheaded
  • pale-skinned
  • a princess
  • lost/missing from her kingdom
  • cat lover
  • gets jealous easily
  • the eighth child in her family

The idea is to generate a list of starting points for exploring different name ideas. You can put pretty much anything on this list, as long as it describes the character in some way.

Decide how obvious you want to be.

Which traits, if any, do you want the reader to pick up on just from reading the character’s name? How obvious do you want the connection between that trait and the character to be?

If you’re writing an allegory – a story in which characters are basically ideas or traits in disguise, like Justice or Peace – you might want the names to be pretty clearly linked to character traits. Likewise, if you’re writing about a character with one particular trait that plays a huge role in the story, you might want to give them a fairly obvious name linked to that trait.

Some names that are just the names of traits characters might have:

  • Hope
  • Charity
  • Joy
  • Baby
  • Cash
  • Messiah

You can also use names with direct “trait” meanings, but in languages other than English. For example:

  • Esperanza (Hope, but in Spanish)
  • Jizen (Charity, but in Japanese
  • Joie (Joy, but in French)
  • Angelo (Angel, but in Esperanto)
  • Octavia (“eighth,” in Latin)

Try a baby name book or website.

If you want a name that means or evokes a certain trait, but isn’t just [Name of Trait], try baby name websites. Many allow you to search for names by meaning.

In the case of our red-headed cat-loving jealous princess, some name options might be:

  • Akane (meaning “red” in Japanese),
  • Alba or Blanche (meaning “white” in Latin or French, respectively)
  • Eadoin (meaning “jealousy” in Irish)
  • Latifah (meaning “kind” or “gentle” in Arabic).

For these, I used the name search tool at BabyNames.com. This tool also lets you search by nationality, by letter, and in other ways, so you can further narrow down your search.

Use a thesaurus.

For this one, you’ll need an actual print thesaurus. Not the ones that have been rearranged in alphabetical order. An actual copy of Roget’s International Thesaurus is ideal.

Contrary to popular belief, a thesaurus is not merely a book of synonyms and antonyms. A properly-organized thesaurus actually shows the relation of every word in English to every other word in English.

Why does that matter here?

The thesaurus is a great way to generate character names, because you can see which words and concepts are closely related to a word or concept you want to associate with that character.

Suppose, for example, that you want to emphasize not your princess’s red hair or love of cats, but the fact that she vanished early in life and has been missing – from the point of view of her parents, anyway – for years. Maybe you want to make it clear that this disappearance was the result of a prophecy or curse: something inherent to the princess and out of her control.

Roget’s International Thesaurus, Seventh Edition, has an entry for “missing person” (it’s 222.5, for the curious). Entry 222.5 reads “absentee, truant, no-show, missing person.”

You can certainly run these words through a baby name search, if you like. BabyNames.com, however, didn’t give me much to go on.

Entries 222.3 and 222.6, however, offer closely-related concepts to that of “missing person.” They include “absence,” “loss,” “death,” “vacation,” and “nobody.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. BabyNames.com gives a whole list of names meaning “loss,” including “Adsila,” “Calantha,” “Hana,” and “Zarah.” Searching for “death” turns up the Slavic name “Morana,” which also means “illness.” Our princess is probably not experiencing her life as much of a vacation, but “nobody” can be translated nicely with the Japanese name “Mumei,” which literally means “nameless.”

Borrow names from existing literary characters or authors.

Yet another way to emphasize a certain trait you want readers to associate with your character is to name that character after an existing well-known literary figure. For example, we might name our fictional princess:

  • Anne (after redheaded Anne of Green Gables, or Anne Frank, one of the youngest published authors in history)
  • Lillian (after Lillian Jackson Braun, author of a series of mysteries featuring cats)
  • Desdemona (a victim of jealousy in Shakespeare’s Othello)
  • Phronsie (after Phronsie Pepper, famous youngest Pepper sibling)
  • Alice (after Alice in Wonderland, who went missing down a rabbit hole)
  • Penelope (Odysseus’s wife, who sits around weaving for ten years after her husband gets extremely lost post-Trojan War)

Will your readers make the connection between the literary figure and your character? Maybe! Maybe not! For those that do, your story gains another dimension, and they get the fun of feeling like they decoded an in-joke.

If you go this route, avoid characters with very recently-made-popular invented names, like Katniss or Khaleesi. You may find yourself on the receiving end of a cease and desist order. At the very least, your readers might confuse your work with fanfiction, and find themselves unhappy when your “Katniss” doesn’t live in a dystopia or your “Khaleesi” has never even heard of dragons.

A Note On Characters With Similar Names

As a rule, I recommend avoiding giving any two characters similar names.

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is a What Not to Do example of a novel in many ways, but one thing Rand got right was to scrupulously avoid giving characters similar names. Rand went so far as to introduce every character (and there are dozens) by both their first and last names – and to give every one of them a different set of initials.

The result is that, even in a dizzyingly long tome with a weak plot, an implausible setting, and ridiculous characters, it’s remarkably easy to keep track of which character is which – even if you only see them once or twice. Nobody else has the same initials as any other character.

For instance, there may be more than one character whose first name starts with D, but the only one of those whose last name starts with T is Dagny Taggart. You don’t have to deal with Dagny Taggart and Dave Thomas and Doris Trumboldt and Donald Trump. So the reader can just register “DT” and know which character this is, and that a “DS” or “DA” will be someone else.

I recommend avoiding not only similar names, but also similar initials. There are exceptions to every rule, however.

If you’re going to use similar names, make sure there’s a plot-based reason the names are similar. For example, maybe the characters Alissa and Alicia are twins. Or Macduff and Macbeth are rival soccer team captains and the story is a rather obvious retelling of Macbeth but with soccer. Maybe Sydney is the new girl at school who had to deal with queen bees Cindy and Candy, and mixing them up is key to how Sydney defeats them.

If there’s no reason in the story itself that characters have to have similar names, change one of the names so your readers don’t get confused – especially if the similarly-named characters appear in a lot of scenes together, or if the story will make no sense if the reader mixes them up. “Wait, why is Alissa the one activating the giant laser? I thought Alicia was the mad scientist” is not a problem you want readers to have at the crucial moment in the story.

(“Alissa” is an English name meaning “of noble kin,” and is related to names like “Alice,” in case you’re wondering. Other options that also mean “noble” but won’t get her mixed up with Alicia include Brianna, Earleen, Heidi, Katrice, Nabila, and Trisha.)

When all else fails….

…just name the character after your crush. No one will notice.


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