Cynthia Giles, The Tarot: History, Mystery
and Lore (Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 1994)
Stuart R. Kaplan, Encyclopedia of Tarot vols I,II,III (U.S. Games Systems Inc, 1978, 1986, 2003)
Jan Woudhuysen, Tarotmania (Optima, 1979)
Anthony Louis, Tarot Plain and Simple (Llewellyn, 2003)
Rachel Pollack, Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom (Thorsons, 1980/97)
Joan Bunning, Learning The Tarot (Red Wheel/Weiser, 1998)
Brian Williams, A Renaissance Tarot (U.S. Games Systems Inc, 1994)
Brian Williams, The Minchiate Tarot (Destiny Books, 1999)
Brian Williams, Ship Of Fools Tarot (Llewellyn, 2002)
If my potted history of tarot and fortune telling has whetted your appetite (or, alternatively, caused you to smoke at the nostrils and bay for my blood) then you will no doubt be itching to learn more. Here I'll whiz through some of the best books and tarot decks in my own collection. Bearing in mind that there are thousands of decks and books available, this can't hope to be a comprehensive review. But it should, at least, point you in the direction of some of the most interesting, beautiful and historically significant decks and some of the most readable and informative books.
There are hundreds of books devoted to tarot currently in print. Add to their number the out-of-print books that are available second-hand and we are almost certainly into the thousands. In my experience, however, only a very small number of these books are actually worth reading.
If you want a good overview of the history tarot, I would recommend Cynthia Giles' The Tarot: History, Mystery and Lore. This provides a good overview of the established facts of the development of the tarot from a game of cards to a method of fortune telling. It gives a brief account of the principal esoteric theories numerology, the kabala, the Hermetic tradition and so on though the author's musings on tarot in relation to quantum mechanics may strike some readers as fanciful.
For a thorough description of the major tarot decks from the Renaissance to the present day, Stuart R. Kaplan's three volume hardback Encyclopedia of Tarot is unsurpassed. Volume I gives an overview of tarot decks through the ages in more 350 pages. It has an extended section on some historically important decks such as the lavish Renaissance decks designed for the Visconti and Visconti-Sforza families. Samples from over 250 ancient and modern tarot decks are shown, though most of the illustrations are disappointingly in black and white. Volume II is an even bigger book with more than 500 pages. It concentrates on decks printed prior to the 20th Century. Volume III is the most massive of the series, with no less than 720 pages. This is dedicated to 20th Century decks. The three volumes together form the most complete reference to tarot decks. It is invaluable if you need to find information or pictures of specific packs. If you want some light bedtime reading, on the other hand, look elsewhere.
Neither Cynthia Giles' Tarot nor Stuart Kaplan's Encyclopedia have much to say on the finer details of fortune telling. If you want a book that promises to teach you to tell the future with the tarot, you will be spoilt for choice. Before you decide on a book, you should be clear in your own mind about whether you think fortune telling is a psychic art, a psychological discipline or a pile of baloney. If you think the latter, any one of the books I am about to mention will fit the bill. If you favour the psychological hypothesis, then two of the best books would be Tarotmania by Jan Woudhuysen and Tarot Plain and Simple by Anthony Louis.
In Tarotmania, Jan Woudhuysen argues that there is a psychological interaction between the tarot cards, the tarot reader and the querent (the person who has come for a tarot reading). He believes that the symbols and pictures on the cards may act as a trigger to unlock the querent's fears, worries and hopes. He does not attribute fixed meanings to the cards but suggests that each reading of the cards involves a new interpretation of the symbols which necessarily gives rise to new and personal meanings. This is a thought provoking book which, however, often seems to strain to retain a mystical view of the cards while simultaneously arguing for a more rational interpretation. Out of print now, old copies of Tarotmania regularly come up on eBay and it is definitely worth a read.
A somewhat different psychological take on the tarot is provided by Anthony Louis, a clinical psychologist, in Tarot Plain and Simple. Louis is generally less troubled than Woudhuysen by the mystical elements of tarot divination. Cards that accidentally 'jump' out a deck when you are shuffling, he says, "are always significant, and the reader should study them carefully." If this sounds like a curiously irrational thing for a psychologist to say, you should bear in mind that Louis is much taken by the ideas of the influential psychoanalyst Carl Jung whose principle of 'synchronicity' postulates hidden meanings in apparently unconnected events. Louis sees Jungian archetypes (symbols of the 'collective unconscious') embodied in the 22 tarot trumps and he finds numerological significances in the suit cards. All in all, this book reads like a mystical interpretation of the tarot for readers who don't like mysticism.
One of the most popular books for people who want to learn to do 'proper' tarot readings in Rachel Pollack's Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom. This is divided into two sections formerly published as two separate books devoted to the Minor and Major Arcana. The symbolism and divinatory meaning of each card is described in great detail (arguably a bit too much detail) and it requires considerable dedication to study this text from start to finish. Pollack concentrates specifically on the Rider-Waite deck and the book would probably be more confusing than helpful if you are using significantly different cards such as those in the Marseille deck.
If you want a down to earth, well paced and clear explanation of divination with the tarot (once again mainly based on the Rider-Waite deck) Joan Bunning's Learning The Tarot can hardly be bettered. Bunning also has an excellent online course at her Learn Tarot Web site. Overall, this is the book I would recommend to a beginner who wants to learn to do tarot readings.
There is, of course, much more to tarot than fortune telling. Many people who don't have the remotest interest or belief in divination with cards become obsessed with tarot. This can be explained partly by the fact that many decks are astonishingly beautiful and partly by the fact that their symbolism is so strange and mysterious. Why does one card have a man hanging upside down, another a tower struck by lightning, others depict dogs howling at the moon, a figure riding in triumph on a chariot, the Grim Reaper and a woman holding a lion's jaws?
For an intelligent and accessible discussion of the iconography of the cards, I vigorously recommend Brian Williams' superb book, A Renaissance Tarot. Williams was not only a Renaissance scholar but also an artist of great talent who died at a tragically young age. In his brief life, he wrote some fascinating books on tarot symbolism and also designed some beautiful tarot decks including the Renaissance Tarot which optionally accompanies this book.
Williams' book and deck set, The Minchiate Tarot, is equally fine. This is devoted to a 97 card deck which has all the usual tarot cards plus another twelve devoted to the signs of the Zodiac and four devoted to the 'elements' earth, air, fire and water. The deck itself is wonderfully illustrated though I personally find the light pastel colouring a little out of keeping with the more robust tints of its historical ancestors. The 260 page book; however, is flawless. Copiously illustrated with Williams' detailed line drawings, it gives an illuminating overview of the implicit significance of the images found on Renaissance, Minchiate and tarot decks and compares them with similar images found in Italian frescos and books of iconography.
Admirers of Williams, will also find much of interest in his eccentric Ship Of Fools Tarot. Inspired by the woodcut illustrations of Sebastian Brandt's 15th Century allegorical work, Das Narrenschiff (The Ship of Fools), each one of the 78 cards depicts a scene featuring one or more fools with The Fool card itself renamed to The Vagabond. Williams' explanatory book, The Book of Fools, is once again lavishly illustrated and contains interesting insights into the significance of the Fool character.