Five days before Christmas morning, and the dreaded phone call comes from your relatives: "Gift cards are so cold and impersonal. So, what do you want for Christmas?"
Here at Hodapphaüs, the traditional answer for forty-one years has been "Books!" The result is becoming owned by the problem of how to downsize when you require a minimum of 96 linear feet of blank wall space with no windows and doors just for all of the bookcases. However, with luck, most of you still have space to expand your own collection, so allow me to toss a couple of recent Masonic-related acquisitions your way. Some are newly published this year, but there are a couple of slightly older (but still modern) works.
I'm in a quandary over my favorite book of the year—especially since I still have quite a few to finish yet—so I'll split hairs. Unquestionably, I tend to favor the historical and cultural study side of Masonic scholarship over the esoteric. That's just my personal bias. Nevertheless, without question, the most thought provoking Masons I have encountered in almost twenty years of membership have been Brethren who have studied theology, either as their personal interest, or in their educational training. These men frequently see meanings and make connections that the rest of us would never discover on our own. Such a Brother is my friend Piers A. Vaughan. Consequently, I wholeheartedly put his book from late last year, Renaissance Man & Mason ($21.97), on top of my list of books to own. Not just of this year, but of all time.
Piers has one of the most diverse and fascinating backgrounds for the study and understanding (and explanation) of Masonic, appendant, and other esoteric orders you will ever encounter. Originally, he is from England, and he belongs to lodges in England, Canada, and the U.S. In his life, he has lived in several European countries, Canada, and now resides in New York. He has a Master's degree in Divinity and another in Experimental Psychology; experience in both the Anglican and Catholic denominations and traditions; an MBA in Business Studies; a teaching diploma in Music; and much, much more. Piers has made extensive studies in history, alchemy, language (he has translated many texts from French to English), symbolism, cultures—truly what anyone would acknowledge to be a "Renaissance Man."
The reason I think this book is so important starts with its disarming construction. It is a collection of twenty-two of Piers Vaughan's speeches and presentations of various lengths and topics, given over a quarter century. Each one reads like a personal conversation with him, and each essay is a trip through the paths of Piers' way of thinking and approaching complex subjects. And occasionally simple ones, too.
We've all encountered Masons who say, "I'm really interested in the esoteric side!" If you say that without understanding just what that really entails, this book should be your first serious introduction. Likewise, if you are a member of one of the appendant bodies like the SRICF, the Red Cross of Constantine, AMD, or others, and you have only a vague understanding of concepts heard or seen during the rituals (or only joined it because you thought it was an honor, whatever it was), buy this book. And even if you have studied these topics and rituals and orders all your life, will still discover surprises and connections you were never aware of before when seen through Piers' unique viewpoint. Be sure you read it with a pack of Post-It bookmark tabs next to you. You will encounter more avenues to explore on your own than you ever thought possible. And I suspect you will do as I have already done myself this year—namely, return to it again and again because of its many layers of concepts and references.
Piers also is the proprietor of Rose Circle Publications that is a source of other fascinating books along similar explorations of esoteric thought that mirror his eclectic mind and interests.
(BTW, he wrote an outstanding article for SRRS' The Plumbine this fall about the origin of the famous engraving of Solomon's Temple so many lodges have copies of from the 18th century that first appeared in the famous George Washington Inaugural Bible printed in 1767. Piers never fails to tell very special stories.)
Best book of the year over on the history side of the shelf for me has been John Bizzack's Island Freemasonry: The Final Bastion of the Observant Lodge ($29, published by Macoy). John's book is a unique take on explaining the very real history and philosophy that has driven frustrated Masons for 25 years to find a way to return even just a handful of American lodges to the traditions and visions Masons first had when the fraternity began to spread westward across the wilderness after the Revolution. He makes the case that Freemasonry's first big burst of growth around the turn of the 19th century was too much, too fast, and too far for its own good. It's a convincing argument that the Morgan incident may very well have been a result of new, unsupervised Masons on the frontier who weren't properly instructed about the fraternity, and too uneducated in general, who might have taken the "ancient penalties" to be the legitimate way to truly handle squealers.
John is physically in a unique place to research his thesis. He is a Past Master of Kentucky's Lexington Lodge 1, which was originally chartered out of Virginia in 1788 as the first Masonic lodge west of the Appalachian Mountains. From that single lodge, Masonry quickly expanded into more than what would be nine new states (my own included). There were political calculations wrapped up with that expansion, and Island Freemasonry (together with Steven Bullock's seminal 1998 work, Revolutionary Brotherhood) examines who was where, and why they may have been selected to simultaneously expand the fraternity along with pushing the frontier farther and farther into the frontier. Bizzack's case study of Lexington Lodge takes up the middle of his book, and it maddeningly arrived at the end of the summer, giving Alice and me just enough time to cram together a chapter in my own new book, but not enough time to do it all justice before the deadline.
Bizzack's ultimate aim is to make the case for "observant" styled lodges, while perhaps removing the two decades of baggage that has been attached to the terms like "traditional observance," "European concept," or "best practices." Misunderstandings, egos, and hubris over the years have tainted those brands in various parts of the country, to the ultimate detriment of the American fraternity. John sees such lodges as "islands," of different ways of thinking about Masonic lodge practices, about what Masonic "education" was intended to be by the founders versus what it became before dying out altogether, and how and why it's so important at this moment in time to look to these original ideas as one path to the future.
I place Island Freemasonry at the co-equal top of my best-of list this year, because both his and Piers Vaughan's books made me totally upend the way I thought about things I had previously neatly filed away in my head. It's rare to get TWO books in the same year that make you look at things completely differently than you did before.
While Freemasons For Dummies has remained popular in the U.S. pretty steadily since it first appeared in 2005, and its French editions have as well, the book has admittedly never sold especially well in the U.K. and the rest of Europe. It was designed to be as generic as possible to appeal to as many jurisdictions as possible, but it's unarguable that other English-speaking Masonry and Continental Masonry are quite different from the U.S. in many respects. That's why I was always astonished that the very popular Oxford University Press "A Very Short Introduction" series never published a book about the fraternity for the European market. It's likely that these pocket-sized books pack as much information into half the size of their For Dummies and Complete Idiots Guide competitors by using thinner paper, very little white space, and much tinier fonts.
Well, in 2017 they finally got around to it, and they hired the perfect author for the job. Freemasonry: A Very Brief Introduction written by Andreas Önnerfors ($11.95) is just what the title says, in a diminutive size. Andreas is currently Associate Professor in the History of Sciences and Ideas at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. But for three years between 2008-10, he was Director of the Centre for Research into Freemasonry and Fraternalism at the University of Sheffield in England. Consequently, he is one of the most respected historians of the fraternity within the academic community, with a wide range of experience and understanding of the history and developments of Freemasonry all over the world. The book he has crafted is noteworthy as much for what it is not: it's not biased or idolizing; it's not a dry, scholarly reference tome, nor does it take the sort of less reverent approach of my book or Brent Morris'; it's not so detailed that it is not applicable in some countries, yet it doesn't leave anything out that is vital to fundamentally understanding the fraternity. The result is an outstanding primer about Freemasonry for those who have zero knowledge whatsoever about the society, and with a more European viewpoint than the better known yellow or orange books over here.
In time for the 300th anniversary of the founding of the premiere Grand Lodge of England in 1717, Lewis Masonic published a massive collection of papers delivered at the Quatuor Coronati Lodge of Research's Tercentenary Conference on the History of Freemasonry from back in September of last year. The book is called Reflections On 300 Years of Freemasonry, edited by John S. Wade (hardback, approx. US$30). The volume contains more than 700 pages of papers from many of the finest Masonic researchers currently writing today, and I cannot stress how much information is covered in nearly fifty presentations. (Don't panic when it arrives - the cover is actually black, not blue).
The book does, by the way, contain the original presentation of Andrew Prescott and Susan Mitchell Sommers, Searching for the Apple Tree: Revisiting the Earliest Years of English Organized Freemasonry. This is the paper in which they cast some doubt on the 1717 founding date, Read and decide for yourself whether their evidence is compelling.
In a similar vein, the Philalethes Society presented its own slightly less ambitious collection of papers for the anniversary year - Exploring Early Grand Lodge Freemasonry: Studies in Honor of the Tricentennial of the Establishment of the Grand Lodge of England. It is published by Plumbstone and co-edited by Christopher B. Murphy and Shawn Eyer. By now, both a hardback ($47.97) and paperback ($34.97) edition are available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Check both, as availability has been changing.
The book contains the "historical account" of the founding of the first organized Grand Lodge by James Anderson, and another eight long papers, including Murphy's excellent Assessing Authentic Lodge Culture: Moving Beyond the Tavern Myth. I recently saw his live presentation of this exploration that makes it quite clear that early lodges meeting in taverns were not doing so simply because the ale ran freely, nor were those Brethren gathering merely for conviviality. They were quite serious about contemplating the serious questions of the day—especially Mankind's place in the Universe—and educating their Brothers. Just because these Freemasons drank didn't make them drinking clubs. In the best of all possible worlds, own both the Philalethes and the QC collections.
A few books fell into the category of published a little longer ago, but new discoveries to me (and i'm still going through the pile).
If you are fascinated by Gothic architecture, operative masons, and the connection to our modern fraternity, you would be hard-pressed to find a more beautifully presented book than Russell Herner's Cathedrals Built By The Masons (2015, $45). Illustrated by more than 250 original color photographs in an oversize hardback format, it is truly a labor of love.
Speaking of architecture, I finally replaced my loaned and lost copy of Thomas Gordon Smith's outstanding edition of Vitruvius On Architecture (2003, published by Monacelli Press, sadly out of print). Another beautifully illustrated, oversized book. While it doesn't include all ten of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio's famous books dating to around 25 B.C., it has the most vital ones that cover the fundamental orders of architecture that remain cornerstones of the art right up to today. If the Fellow Craft degree has eluded you when it came to the orders depicted by the columns, this is an excellent place to start. Even modern architecture schools still begin with Vitruvius' books more than 2,000 years later. Better still, if you want to understand why certain buildings just seem to feel more beautiful, more harmonious than others (and why Freemasons need to immediately stop building faceless, charmless, invisible pole barn "temples" in cornfields just because they are cheap), start here. And I'm not just plumping for it because we chose to name one of my lodges after him.
(And as Albert Pike said, "There is no trust to be put in borrowers of books, as I have found to my cost.")
Brother Angel Millar has just published a newly revised, hardback edition of his The Crescent and the Compass: Islam, Freemasonry, Estoricism, and Revolution in the Modern Age ($25). There are few books on this topic of our non-sectarian fraternity based on Old Testament and hermetic symbology and philosophy intersecting (or clashing) with Islam's religious, tribal, and political culture in the Middle East in the last century. There are even fewer in English. (Also be sure to check out Dorothe Sommers' 2015 Freemasonry in the Ottoman Empire. Reading both will provide you with a substantial understanding of Freemasonry's role in the region over the last two centuries.)
I heartily recommend Angel's excellent book as a succinct reference work any Mason should have on his shelf. This topic is just not found in many reliable places in English language volumes, and as migratory patterns have so rapidly shifted all around the world from political, economic, and religious unrest in the region, a basic understanding of Freemasonry and Islam and how they relate (or often don't) is more and more essential than it's ever been.
I have mentioned two unique books translated by Brother Kamel Oussayef from French into beautiful English language editions for the Scottish Rite Northern Masonic Jurisdiction previously, but they bear repeating here: The Book of Wisdom (2013, $34.95) and this year's The Spirit of Freemasonry ($75). Both were originally written in the early 1800s by Jean Doszedardski, a Polish member of French lodges in Paris, and eventually, New Orleans. They are filled with early descriptions of haut grades ritual, different customs, lodge practices, even table lodges. I heartily recommend both, and a third book in this series is expected to be released soon. They are available from the AASR-NMJ online shop along with the NMJ's tremendous edition of the Francken Manuscript. All of these books are loving examples of the book publishing arts, of the very highest quality, and well worth the investment.
And I would be remiss to not mention the very lovingly crafted bonus book of the Scottish
Rite SJ's Scottish Rite Research Society from 2015, Reprints of Old Rituals ($55), compiled and annotated by Arturo De Hoyos. Included are some of the earliest known printed versions of the Mark Master, Past Master, Royal Arch, Royal Master, Knights Templar, and others that were assembled to become what became the York Rite in the U.S., along with a few other stray gems There are competing variations of many of these same degrees all compiled in this volume, making it a unique work to see the development of what we know today. For dedicated students of ritual, it is a fascinating treasure trove buried with what are today forgotten nuggets that were lost over time.
I also recommend two books that are compilations of writings from two long-time leaders of the fraternity who, throughout their Masonic careers, have created an enormous body of observations on a monthly basis. The first is The Questing Mind Is A Salient Characteristic of a Freemason by John L.Cooper III, PGM and Past Grand Secretary of the GL of California (2015, $25). John has been writing a column in the California Freemason magazine in every single issue since 1999, and this is a collection of 71 of these short essays. You will find insights, surprises, philosophy, trivia, history, symbolism, and nearly anything else you can imagine. After more than a half century of being a Mason, John continues to write on a regular basis, and the editor of this collection, Allan L. Casalou, promises additional volumes to come.
The other has literally just arrived in the mailbox over the weekend. The 33 Principles Every Freemason Should Live By: The True Meaning of being A Freemason (2017, $14.95) has just been published by Westphalia Press as a similar collection of short writings by the late C. Fred Kleinknecht, Jr., former Sovereign Grand Commander of the Scottish Rite SJ. The manuscript was discovered in the back of a closet shelf by his family, and has just been published by Westphalia Press. Much of it was adapted from his monthly columns in the Rite's magazine at the time, The New Age (longtime precursor to today's Scottish Rite Journal). As the title suggests, each essay is divided under simple concepts of tolerance, fraternity, character, family, teamwork, and twenty-seven others. Through them, the reader gets a well rounded image of the broad range of facets that make up the well-rounded man and Mason. In addition, the appendix features a collection of Kleinknecht's full editorials, in which he explores many of the ills of modern society that Freemasonry has the strong potential of helping to turn around, if only we would apply it in daily life. They make a case that s perhaps even more compelling today than they were when he wrote them between 1985 and 2003.
While not as well known as Macoy, Lewis, or Cornerstone publishing companies, don't overlook Westphalia Press as a source of a growing list of quite unique Masonic books you won't find from any other source.
As for me, I'm currently taking a stab at Jay Winik's massive 2007 masterwork, The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World 1788-1800 ($17.93). Because I'm a masochist and I need a bit of reminding of what we all once used to know about our own nation before we collectively lost our minds.
Have a very Merry Christmas and may you enjoy many happy hours of reading and discovery!
LAST SECOND ADDITION:
My copy of this absolutely magnificent book just arrived today after I first posted this list. If you have a dull as dishwater lodge room in desperate need of redecorating and you don't know where to start, run, do not walk, to order yourself a copy of A la Découverte des Temples Maçonniques de France (A Discovery of the Masonic Temples of France) by Ludovic Marcos and photographed by Ronan Loaëc from French Amazon.fr. Over 600 full color, oversize pages of some of the most diverse-looking lodge rooms (mostly from the last half of the 20th century) you'll ever encounter anywhere. The book has just been published in the last month €49 (about US $58).
It won't arrive in time for Christmas (unless you're in France), and be aware that the shipping box from Amazon Global needs to be a lot sturdier (mine was open on both ends), but order it anyway. You won't be disappointed.