Originally published Sunday, August 21, 2011 at 7:00 PM

Lit Life

The hidden charms of occult books

Lit Life visits with the founder of the Esoteric Book Conference, in Seattle on Sept. 10-11.

Seattle Times book editor

Coming up

The Esoteric Book Conference

Sept. 10-11, Olympic and Rainier rooms of Seattle Center; two-day tickets are $80-$120; one-day passes, $50. The book fair and art show are free. Information, schedule and tickets: Tickets will also be for sale at the event.
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Lit Life |

William Kiesel grew up in an era of great used bookstores. Shorey's, the rambling old downtown Seattle book store. David Ishii and Bowie & Company in Pioneer Square.

Stores with stacks of used books that seemed to go on forever were treasure houses for Kiesel, a White Center native and 1988 Evergreen High School graduate who just couldn't get enough books. Especially old books. Kiesel was drawn to them early on — he remembers an early illustrated edition of "Alice in Wonderland" he found at an aunt's place as a child. He recalls thinking: "Now this is a real book."

As he developed a working knowledge of used and rare books, he began to study very old books, including volumes devoted to alchemy, the combination of physical science, medicine and magic that preceded the development of modern chemistry. "I liked the fact that they were filled with symbols and myths," he remembers. "In the 16th and 17th century, bookmaking achieved a high level of art."

Alchemical books inhabit a subcategory of books on the occult — books on magic, books on astrology, books on witchcraft, metaphysics and alternative-belief systems, including hermeticism, a world view based on Greek and Egyptian writings. Books embedded with double meanings, puzzles, rebuses. Books believed by some to be talismanic objects with their own power.

During the Catholic Church's domination of Europe, publishers took their lives in their hands by printing them. "The Inquisition started cracking down ... They were afraid these (writings) would disprove the existence of God," Keisel says. Some who insisted were burned at the stake.

Kiesel has spent years studying books and has worked in the used- and rare-book business and as an Internet bookseller (he still works part-time at Magus Books in the University District). He even apprenticed for a time with a bookbinder.

Today, he's parlayed his passion into Ouroboros Press (, which specializes in new, high-quality editions of old and occult books (the word ouroboros refers to an ancient symbol for reincarnation and renewal; that of a snake swallowing its tail).

Publishing director of Ourobos, Kiesel is also a key organizer of the third annual Esoteric Book Conference, which takes place at the Seattle Center on Sept. 10 and 11 and may be the biggest gathering in this country for aficionados of occult books.

Thanks to "The Da Vinci Code" and the Harry Potter books, the 21st century has been reintroduced to ancient signs, symbols and magical practices. (Kiesel gives J.K. Rowling credit for "doing her homework.") Hard-core enthusiasts for the original material are thinner on the ground — last year's conference drew 120 ticket buyers. But they came from all over. This year, collectors and exhibitors will travel from as far afield as New Zealand to attend.

It's "the premier conference" for aficionados of esoteric books, says Michael Lieberman of Wessel & Lieberman, the Pioneer Square rare-book dealer where Kiesel worked for about four years.

Kiesel says the conference focus will be more on the books than the belief systems, though if you go, you may run into some followers of Aleister Crowley, the English occultist/mystic/magician, as well as modern-day alchemists and other devotees of obscure magic and occult orders.

If the conference presenters are too out there for you, you can put your toe in the water by attending the book fair: Though tickets for the two-day conference are $80-$120, the fair is free.

One of Ouroboros Press' editions is the first English translation of "Cantus Circaeus: The Incantations of Circe," a 1582 book by Giordano Bruno, a Dominican friar who was burned at the stake by church authorities in 1600 for his heretical beliefs. I can't make head or tail of the subject matter, but the book is a work of art, with high-quality paper, a sewn binding and elegant old illustrations.

Do such books make their own magic? Hard to say, but if you poke your head into the Esoteric Book Conference, you might come a little closer to finding out.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or Follow her on Twitter at @gwinnma.

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