July 17, 2008


Snoop: What Your Stuff Says about You. By Sam Gosling, Ph.D. Basic Books. $25.

The Book of Wizards. Selected and illustrated by Michael Hague. HarperCollins. $19.99.

      Sam Gosling doesn’t exactly wave a wand to learn things about people that they may prefer he not find out, but there is enough apparent wizardry in his snooping and analysis to make some of his revelations seem a lot like magic. Gosling, who is anything but a small goose, is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. Most of what he does is observe people and their places closely – the basis of much magic as well as a great deal of hokum. But what Gosling finds out isn’t hokum at all. Many people understand intuitively that the things they own reflect on them – but what they reflect may not be what people think. The reason is “seepage and leakage,” which means that “many elements of personality find their ways into our behaviors without our being conscious of it. …Personality is expressed not just in our behaviors but also in the way we perceive the world; that is, anxious people not only fidget when under stress but they see more dangers, threats, and things to worry about than their laid-back neighbors, who see no good reason to get their knickers in a twist.” What this means is that the way people do simple things, such as shaking hands or jumping, reflects their personalities clearly to someone who has studied the relationship between behavior and personality as thoroughly as Gosling has. Furthermore, the things we accumulate – and the way we choose to display (or not display) them – can be important personality keys. Gosling builds on some important work done by earlier psychologists, such as Erving Goffman, author of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. But Gosling thinks Goffman’s idea that people in daily life perform like characters in a play is insufficient, because people’s true personalities will peek through no matter how carefully they try to conceal them. This leads Gosling to a neat distinction between a tidy room and a tidied room: the former reflects a personality that naturally keeps things neat and organized, while the latter is a mostly transparent attempt to appear neater than a person actually is – an unsuccessful attempt when Gosling is observing the room, because “many parts of our personalities are simply irrepressible.” This is fascinating stuff – so fascinating that, no matter how many times Gosling reminds readers that he is primarily practicing careful observation and interpreting what he sees in accordance with established standards, a lot of his revelations about how we inevitably project ourselves to the world through our behaviors and owned objects still seem somewhat magical.

      Gosling may be a real-world wizard, but he is not a real wizard in the classic sense, as becomes clear in The Book of Wizards, which collects folktales from Russia, Wales, Iceland, Greece, the Baltic and elsewhere. Yet it is interesting to compare Gosling’s skill in real-world observation (in a book intended for adults) with the talents on display in Michael Hague’s fictional story compilation (for ages 6-11). It turns out that close observation of one’s environment is a key to successful wizardry, and that underlying personality characteristics do indeed determine one’s success not only on Earth but also in magical lands. Thus, in the Native American tale of “Coyote and the Medicine Woman,” Coyote’s careful observation of the way the medicine woman obtains meat makes it possible for him to steal her magic – but her own more-careful observation of Coyote brings the magic back. In the Russian story of “Baba Yaga,” the underlying generosity of young Sonya’s heart shines through even in a place of fear and terror – and gets her out of danger safely. In the medieval legend of “King Solomon’s Ring,” it requires both careful observation and an innate sense of patience and caution for the young hero to obtain ultimate power – which he wishes to use only for the common good. It will not do to push parallels between real and magical worlds too closely, but it does not hurt to probe them to a limited extent, since, after all, the creators of the old tales were living in the real world when they made up their stories – and those stories, however changed they may be after many years, still reflect some underlying truths as perceived by those who first told them and by their successors. Hague’s book gets a (+++) rating for its intended audience, because in addition to many high spots it also has some ill-told tales, such as an inaccurate distillation of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” a peculiar take on the story of Merlin, and a version of the legend of Circe and Odysseus that is well presented but for no good reason insists on calling the Greek hero by the Roman name of Ulysses. Still, for young readers who may think J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter sprang fully formed from Rowling’s fertile mind, The Book of Wizards will provide a good deal of interesting food for magical thought.

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