The Skeptic's Bookshelf
People occasionally demand to know where I get my information. I get some of it from the internet and some from the library, but I also have a number of books, gotten from second-hand stores and yard sales. On this page, you can find pictures of the covers and short reviews.
The Encyclopedia of Monsters: Daniel Cohen
This is one of the first books on the subject that I ever bought. It's more or less just a collection of monster stories, with a couple of pages worth of photographs in the center. During my interview with Dr. David Jacobs, he related to me with some disgust that he'd heard of the author before, and that he was a 'debunker.' If that's true, you sure as hell can't tell from reading the book. I get the distinct impression that he believes all of these monsters are out there somewhere. A fantastic book for bathroom reading: short articles that entertain you, if not make you think a whole lot. I owe this book a great debt, as it is the first thing that introduced me to both the Mad Gasser of Mattoon and the Fur-Bearing Trout, a story I still tell when down at the pub.
Recommendation: If you see a copy, pick it up. Nothing better for sitting on the ol' toilet.
Spaceships in Pre-History: Peter Kolosimo
This book is nothing so much as it is hyperactive. I was looking forward to a thoughtful, insightful study of ancient artefacts that would make me think. Instead, I got motion sickness as the author makes a claim, explains about a third of it, leaps to another topic, and moves on with a frantic speed that would make a hummingbird nauseous. Some of his claims include that since various objects manufactured by ancient societies all over the world are decorated with spirals, they must have been in communication with each other. Also, since our galaxy is spiral-shaped, this contact must have been facilitated by space aliens that let our ancestors know a little bit about astronomy.
The best part of this book is the fact that it contains over 300 photographs and illustrations. Perhaps I'm just a wierdo that finds archaeology fascinating, but they're really a blast to see. I recommend getting this book and just looking at all the photos. Don't bother reading it. It's also interesting that sometimes the photos somewhat discount the author's theories, but he plows right through the questions the pictures raise. For instance, he claims that in both ancient Egypt and northern Europe folding tables were developed. They look sort of like TV dinner trays. Therefore, aliens must have told our ancestors how to make them. There are photographs of the two of them and, to be honest, they look nothing alike. This is of, however, no consequence to Kolosimo, who just rushes his way through the evidence. It would have been a better book if he had taken perhaps a quarter of the topics and elaborated on them more.
Recommendation: Don't go out of your way to find a copy. You probably can't find it anyway.
Mysterious Creatures: Time-Life Books
I got this at a yard sale when I was 10 or 12 years old. Time-life came out with a whole series of these things, each dealing with a different subject. I seem to recall that there was one about UFOs, one about life after death, and about thirty others. This one deals with all the staples of cryptozoology: bigfoot, the Mokole Mbembe, giant squid, that ugly goddamn coacelanth, and so on. It's more like a large magazine than a book, really, containing photos and about one or two hundred words on each subject. Big, glossy pictures with a snazzy layout, but very little actual information. In the centre of the book there's an illustrated spread about some fisherman going mano-a-mano with a giant squid that attacks their rowboat. It takes up a couple of pages and is a good example of the overall book: for four or five pages, all you really learn is that at one point some fishermen had a scrap with an enormous monster of the deep.
Recommendation: Maybe you can find a copy at a yard sale. Really only interesting if it's your first book on cryptozoology.
Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds: Charles Mackay
This book was a christmas present from my father. If there's anything I can say about him, it's that he's read some high-quality books in his day. Written in 1841, it is an absolute classic in every possible way, dealing with the subjects of mass manias, human folly, and how groups of people can just go flat-out crazy when they get together. Topics covered include Tulipmania, the Great Crusades, witch-burning, alchemy, fortune-telling, Nostradamus, and all manner of money-related scams and hysteria. If you haven't read this book, close this webpage immediately and go find a copy. At points it alternates between amusing and downright chilling; to see the ridiculous things people believed just because everyone else did is hilarious, but the chapter discussing the uses, morality, and efficiency of torturing prisoners should hit you like a brick between the eyes.
At points it's a little hard to read because it's written in, if you will, Olde Englishe, but if I can make my way through it, anyone can. There's nothing in here about UFOs, aliens, bigfoot, or the Loch Ness monster, but if everyone in the world were to read it, I'd have a lot less to write about on this site.
Recommendation: Even if you're not interested in the paranormal, read this book. It is a fascinating combination of history, psychology, and skepticism.
Abduction- Human Encounters with Aliens: John Mack, M.D.
John Mack earned a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Lawrence of Arabia; he should have had it revoked for unleashing this abomination on the world. He was a Harvard Psychiatrist who was well-respected in his field. Indeed, before he got involved with UFOs, he was a model scientist and great thinker. For some reason, he became interested in the topic of alien abduction, and proceeded to investigate it with great energy, never once questioning anything that he was told, ever, by anyone. I could have sold this guy the Brooklyn Bridge, had I been abducted by aliens. I absolutely respect his other work, but his efforts in the area of UFO research are the bread on a shit sandwich.
Anyway, I'll be honest with you. I couldn't finish this book. Not a single person on this planet has ever finished this book. Let's put this in perspective: I went to Catholic school as a child and got a degree in engineering; and by my standards, this book is tedious. Do you understand? Compared to going to Catholic school, this book is tedious. It just goes on and on. And on, and on, and on.
The worst part about this book is the fact that so many obvious questions come up, and Mack doesn't ask them. I found myself straining against my pulling out my hair, screaming at the book 20 pages in to it. It's like in a movie when the audience all know that the hero should cut the blue wire, not the red wire, and it looks like he's going to cut the red one. You know how someone in the theatre always breaks under the pressure and screams "cut the blue one! The blue one!" as though the guy in the movie can hear him? That was me the entire time I was reading the book.
In his first chapter, he writes about a young woman who was abducted by aliens. She only 'regained her memory', however, after being brought to the verge of a comlete mental collapse by her emotionally abusive husband. Had I been in Mack's place, I would have found some gentle way to ask "hey, did you make up all this stuff about aliens so that you could avoid thinking about your life, which is falling down in pieces around you?" Yet Mack never does. Had he at least asked, or even given the impression that this question occured to him at some point, I could have cut him some slack.
Recommendation: This book is a frustrating waste of time. Do not read it. If you go to a friend's house and see this book there, throw an intervention.
The Wierd 100: Stephen Spignesi
This book was a Valentine's day present, which proved me wrong: I thought she just sort of tuned me out when I started talking about space monsters. Anyway, this book is a collection of 100 articles on the paranormal, part of a series of books that are 100 articles on some topic. Each article begins with a short haiku written by Spignesi, which I must admit is a pretty neat bonus. Then there's a definition of the subject at hand, a short summary of what the believers, and then what the skeptics, believe to be true about the topic, and then a rating of the quality of the evidence at hand and probability that the subject is authentically paranormal.
Most of the articles are pretty good, but sometimes I get the feeling that Spignesi had to stretch to come up with 100 of them. For instance, the entry on Invisibility is a story he apparently made up about a woman going to a video store and not being able to get proper service. The articles are also a little on the short side, not that I'm one to speak when it comes to article length, but each one has a list of sources at the end, in case it piques your interest.
The length of the articles is a little frustrating to me, because I am a giant nerd. I found myself occasionally exclaiming "this is true, but he didn't mention ______!" At first, I thought that one book of 50 articles that were twice as long would be better, but I'm no longer convinced that is true. This book is a pretty good smorgasboard of paranormal phenomena, though skimpy on the details.
Recommendation: This is another book that seems to have been custom-written for sitting on the back of the ol' toilet tank. Readers that know about any of the subjects in depth, however, may be a bit frustrated by the scanty coverage their particular area of expertise recieves.
The Truth Behind the Men in Black: Jenny Randles
This is another one of my first books on the subject. I can remember when I bought it; my buddy Stix and I at the Montgomeryville mall the day after I'd gotten paid for bussing tables at Zoto's Diner, the ignorant springtime of my youth. If I recall, I bought this book, a starter's deck of Magic: The Gathering cards, and Demolition Winter, a book from the TV series Space: Above and Beyond. Ahh, those were the days.
Reminiscence aside, this book spooked the crap out of me when I first read it. It's a collection of reports on the so-called Men In Black, and their wacky adventures as they try and force those who have spotted UFOs to remain silent. Randle's writing style is substantially better than most involved in the UFO field; she avoids the dense unreadability of Mack, the musty boredom of authors who write on UFOs in their historical context, and, for the most part, the hysterical theorizing of Von Daniken. She seems to accept reports from 'reliable witnesses' at face value, and I rather suspect she could use a healthier dose of cynicism as to the nature of the human condition. Where she sees encounters with space aliens, I am more likely, and urge all of you to be more likely, to see bored people looking for some excitement with wild tales.
Her explanations for events are never, shall we say, exotic, though I prefer explanations that do not involve government agents or space people. If I had to recommend a book on the subject of the aliens and the paranormal, this would likely be it. It's enjoyable to read, I just wish that people would read it with a critical eye, rather than accepting that the witnesses are credible just because the author says so. My favorite part is where she speaks briefly on the joys and dangers of investigating the strange. The card she gets that could be easily construed as a death threat reminds me of so many of the emails I recieve on a weekly basis.
Recommendation: Read this book, but don't believe everything you read. Great for long flights or car rides.
The Gold of the Gods: Erich Von Daniken
Von Daniken became famous decades before I was born by forwarding the theory that many of the gods worshipped, monsters killed, and miracles seen by our ancient ancestors were actually the product of alien involvement in human history. He didn't lounge about after bringing this idea up; he cranked out several books that earned him the money of a throng of chumps and the smoldering hatred of the archaeological community. (I bought this book at a second-hand store; I like to think that that means Von Daniken made no profit off of my reading it.)
I've been told that I am prone to exaggeration, to the use of hyperbole to make a point, but I hope you understand that I am taking great pains to make sure this next sentence is, if anything, and understatement: This book is the pure, distilled essence of madness. It is the absolute embodiment of all the evils, all the faults, of the human mind.
In it, Von Daniken describes going to South America and seeing miles upon miles of subterranean tunnels, originally created by alien beings as a refuge on our world. In it, he finds several books with metal pages, covered in strange markings, that he feels will revolutionize the world once they have been properly translated. At one point he wants to take a picture of the object, and of the tunnels but that no matter how much he begged, his guide would not allow him to do so. There's a strange menace in the air, and they fear that taking a picture would be like desecrating a grave, and may activate such repurcussions as a "laser defence system."
That's how the entire book goes. Von Daniken makes an insane claim, and then tries some clever story to explain why he has absolutely no evidence to support it. He may have been a lunatic of the highest caliber, but he certainly had a clever writing style. The only point at which, it should be noted, he is not making insane claims is when he is disparaging the scientific community with an almost Hitleresque arrogance. Every other sentance ends with "but they don't believe me, the fools! Archaeologists are swine!" The first few times, it's interesting to see Von Daniken's frustration that he is not being taken seriously, but it swiftly becomes almost nauseating as page of invective follows page of invective. This book was in no way useful, except in convincing me that I should tone down the insults and foul language in my own writing.
The most interesting thing is that in this book, written decades ago, Von Daniken predicts his vindication as a scientist, a complete revolution in how we look at human history, and contact with space aliens and all their amazing technology, within the next few years. I've not been out recently, but I'm sure I would have heard something had this actually happened. I hope all the people that believed in this quack when he first wrote his books are now appropriately embarassed.
Recommendation: Do not read this book. It is so bad that it might give you cancer, and in it there is no information of any use (or even interest).
UFOs, ETs, and Visitors from Space: Melvin Berger
I bought this book for $2 on eBay. On the inside cover, it's stamped "L.E. Willson Middle School" and it still has its library code on the spine. At first, I was suspicious, because I just assumed that people that believe in UFOs, unable to convince the scientific community in the truth of their claims, had decided to start writing children's books. Get future scientists at an early age, so to speak.
This suspicion was only enhanced by reading the first chapter. It gives a brief description of a number of UFO incidents, including the Barney and Betty Hill incident. I mention this because there's a picture of Barney's original sketch that's better than any I've seen in any other book; he must have made a copy of the original or something. Anyway, these short descriptions make it sound like every event is a genuwine spotting of a spaceship. I was fairly incensed at the end of the first chapter: it had promised to take a fair and balanced, so to speak, look at the UFO phenomenon, and all I was getting was the pro position!
Reading the second chapter taught me an important life lesson about patience. In the second chapter, he goes on to explain the perfectly mundane realities of each incident, such as the planet Venus, the Russians launching rockets on cloudy evenings, so on and so forth. Some, such as the Hill case, he admits he's not really sure what's going on. It's just like real life: the majority of sightings can be explained, and there's a few where we'll never know what's going on. There are certainly no indisputable cases. I liked this book, despite the fact that I read it cover to cover in 20 minutes.
Recommendation: If an 8 year old child asks you about UFOs, you can give them this book. For the adult reader, there's nothing new. Its shape also makes it hard to find a good spot for it on the bookshelf.
The Threat: Dr. David Jacobs
I once interviewed Dr. Jacobs, and the impression that I took away from meeting him was that he was a very nice guy, and very sincere in his beliefs. That being said, his book is a strange kettle of fish. Briefly, it outlines the plan that space aliens have for abducting human beings, harvesting their... genetic material, and then using that material to create a race of hybrid alien/humans that will some day colonize the earth. It's chock full of transcripts from hypnosis sessions, and the moral of the story seems pretty bleak: there's nothing we can do to stop alien abductions, and the little buggers are going to win some day.
The big problem, at least the big problem that I had with the book, is that it relies 100% on what witnesses recalled under hypnosis. Early in the book, Dr. Jacobs devotes an entire chapter to showing what a lousy practice hypnosis is. He goes over all of the pitfalls of relying on such a technique, even gives examples of some of his colleagues using hypnosis in the wrong way. He then proceeds to write an entire book about things he learned from hypnosis.
He recommends some methods for making the most of a hypnosis session, such as not asking leading questions and avoiding planting the "right answer" in people's minds. Perhaps I'm just uninformed about such things, but the examples of things he says shouldn't be said occasionally look very similar to things he says during hypnosis sessions later in the book.
Okay. So if you think hypnosis is awesome, you'll have no trouble believing at least the methodology for this book. On to the meat of the matter: this book is raunchy. This book is raunchy and a half. This book is to degenerate pornography what John Drake is to secret agents. If you don't know who John Drake was, let me put it this way: If he got into a fight with James Bond, James Bond would be killed. I'd thought I'd done some pretty blue things in my life, but there were sections of this book that made me blush. If you were to try and find a movie that had even half of the kinky sex stuff that's in this book, you would have to special order it from a small country in Japan or Germany or some other country where the line between what should and what should not be done to a human body gets blurry.
Unimaginable erotica aside, this books claims that there's a pretty standard routine to alien abductions, that they're all more or less the same, and that we've got a pretty good idea of what the aliens do. Some of it, such as the scene where a woman goes into a cavernous room on a spaceship and sees bodies floating in tanks of clear liquid, are reminiscient of pop culture (I'm thinking specifically of that scene from the XFiles episode The Erlenmeyer Flask.) The fact that all of the hypnosis sessions say more or less the same thing also makes me wonder: do all of the abductees that come to Dr. Jacobs say the same thing, or are ones who say different, new stories automatically discounted for not fitting the mold?
Recommendation: It's a book not for the weak of heart. Even I, a 24 year old American male with a penchant for the nasty, had to look up definitions for some of the sex acts contained therein. It's good, in that it contains the unedited transcripts of a number of hypnosis sessions, but it's bad in that you can't really get a feel for the overall gist: are theses sessions representative of the entire phenomenon? Are there other explanations aside from alien breeding progams? Beats me.