rating: 5 of 5 stars
Every once in a while I read a book that makes me wish I could sit down the the with the writer over coffee in some kind of setting which included lots of comfy couches and no distractions and have a conversation about people, history and human nature. Peter Washington writes with such a charming combination of humor, warmth and cynicism that he seems like he would be fun to hang out with.
Madame Blavatsky's Baboon covers the history of spiritualism from the early 19th century through the 20th. His treatment is especially fascinating because he is not pushing any particular religion. Most of what I have heard or read about the characters he describes comes from their own hagiographies. Its impossible not to wander down a main street in Santa Cruz, Mountain View, San Francisco or Healdsburg and not read the posters touting some black-haired swami as the answer to the human race's problems, to know survivors from 1970s era "encounter groups," or people who escaped from cults. Washington includes short biographies, summaries of teachings, influences of some of great granddaddies and grandmommas of New Age. His incredulity is refreshing, his anecdotes are copiously referenced and he provides a huge bibliography and fantastic notes.
The only drawback is the organization of the book. Some chapters will follow individuals over a number of decades and then bounce back in time in the following chapter to a different person which I found to be a little disconcerting. In spite of that, it was a completely addicting book and I didn't want to put it down until I was done.
One of the bonuses of the book is that it totally cured me from ever wanted to start a cult of my own. Every once in a while I think that if I sat down and applied myself I could start my own cult and become rich and famous, like many other people. But as history shows cults always fall into similar patterns, they become creaky with old age, they get isolated and totally crazy or they just become catholic.
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