Arthur Goldwag (Quercus)

So you're at an art opening (if you're that way inclined) someone starts talking about 'pre-raphaelitism'. You're heard the term before but you have no idea what it means. So you nod you're head knowledgeably and hope the conversation will move on to more safer ground.

In a situation like that you need a book like Isms and ideologies, a handy compendium of dogmas, doctrines, philosophies, creeds and credos. Turn to page 120 and you'll find a concise one page summary of pre-raphaelitism.

Some terms will be familiar. Most of us will have some idea of what Darwinism or Roman Catholicism is, but other terms will be a mystery. How about chiliasm or donatism? And what is Muggletonianism?

The book is divided into seven broad categories including philosophy and history, philosophy and the arts and religion. There is also a brief, six page section called 'Sexual Perversions' - I suspected this section was added with an eye on sales.

There have a fair few compendiums and almanacs, some have been pure entertainment and others are serious academic works (eg the Oxford compendium) but Goldwag has succeeded in writing a book that is both a useful reference work and an entertaining read.

Of course in a book like this, Goldwag can only provide basic outlines of vast subjects like Christianity and Marxism but this book is a useful starting point to more in-depth research.

This book is both enlightening and also, in places, faintly disturbing. For example, I always knew Scientology was bonkers but I didn't realise just how bonkers it was until I read Goldwag's useful summary of this bizarre 'religion':

'Scientology's creation story features a wicked alien being named Xenu, who ruled over a vastly overpopulated galactic federation some seventy-five million years ago. In a fiendish subterfuge, Xenu ordered billions of his subjects to report to his government's offices so their income tax returns could be audited. When they arrived, they were paralysed, injected with alcohol, loaded onto 'space planes' (which looked like DC-8s), and transported to earth, where their bodies were piled up near volcanoes. Then hydrogen bombs were detonated, causing the volcanoes to erupt. Though the captives' bodies were vaporized, their souls, known as Thetans, were sucked into 'vacuum zones' and then transported to a movie theatre, where they were compelled to watch a 3-D movie for thirty-six days. This movie indoctrinated them into the tents of traditional religion and other falsehoods, while depriving them of a sense of identity. These Thetans are our souls.'

Remember, there are otherwise rational people who believe this B movie nonsense, including celebrities John Travolta, Tom Cruise and Kirsty Alley.

Indeed this book demonstrates that, as a race, we humans have the capacity to believe some strange and bizarre things.

In the introduction Michael Lewis makes the point that this book actually shakes some of our assumptions.

For example the theory of cinema known as auteurism, explains how many (mostly Hollywood) directors can grow rich and famous by using other people's creative work - and nobody gives it a second thought. Why for example is The Lord of the Rings referred to as Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings when JRR Tolkien created it? Worth thinking about.

This book does have its faults though like a number of George Bush jokes which are too much of these times and will quickly become dated. Similarly using the ardent Christian CS Lewis to define atheism was puzzling. However these errors are minor and can be easily edited out in any upcoming second edition - or the paperback edition.

In these internet days its easy just to 'Google' or look up Wikipedia for a definition of an ologie or ism, but this book is convenient because all the terms are packaged in a handy 350 page book. And on the internet you have to know what you are looking for. I've just opnned the book on something called 'Gradgrindism' - not a word you hear bandied about much down at the pub.

I liked this book a lot and I will be looking for the opportunity to pretentiously drop 'Bogomilism' into a conversation soon....
Steven Cowan


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