If I had to describe A Brief History of Secret Societies in a word, it might be: rambling. While I definitely get the impression that David V. Barrett is an authority on the topics discussed, the text leaves a lot to be desired in the way of organization. A better structure would have greatly improved the book’s readability and brought some much needed clarity to the author’s intentions. Despite touching on a wide variety of material, the entire 300 page work is divided into only six chapters, the majority of which suffer from a lack of consistency or apparent direction.
With a title like A Brief History of Secret Societies, one might be forgiven for expecting the majority of the time to be spent in discussion of secret societies. The reality proves somewhat different. The first two chapters are more akin to high level history lessons, and while portions of chapter two do cover a few classical esoteric groups, the focus is more on religion than anything else. Religious practice is obviously a backdrop for many societies, but the ties are often made loosely, if at all.
Chapter three is “Freemasonry,” which proves to be about as directly and deeply focused on a specific society as the book gets. While informative, I did feel an unnecessary amount of effort was spent defending Masonry from its detractors, which was energy that could have been better utilized going deeper into what Freemasonry is, where it came from, and why. A “history” text arguably shouldn’t need to take a position on the legitimacy of the group, when an honest presentation of the facts would have more or less the same effect on the reader.
With chapter four we’re back to waltzing randomly around topics of the occult. While several Rosicrucian orders do make an appearance, they’re couched between discussions magic and the tarot for little obvious reason. The author seems to have a particular interest in the tarot, which appears in several sections, and is discussed in more detail than most of the secret societies, yet little direct connection between the two is ever made.
Chapter five, “The Dark Side,” may be the most interesting chapter in the entire book, given that it actually addresses (if briefly) several genuinely intriguing societies. Unfortunately, by trying to condense these into one collective chapter, we’re left with little depth. We learn that these groups exist, and a few facts about each, but the coverage is far from exhaustive. The author may have been trying to downplay the link between esoterica and bad behavior, but it feels like a missed opportunity.
The concluding chapter takes us back down the rabbit hole, with more discussion of various occult materials like the holy grail and tarot (again).
In retrospect, the title A Brief History of Secret Societies seems doomed to set the reader up for disappointment. The author is clearly more interested in discussing anything and everything of an esoteric nature. This may include some secret societies, but also covers religions, tarot, alchemy, and all manner of other tangentially associated things, in no particular order, and without making a sufficient effort to tie these themes together. The chaotic chapter structure only exacerbates the problem. Without any clear direction to keep us on track, the entire book rambles along, popping into and out of topics with abandon.
All of this is not to say that the work is without educational potential. The author is clearly deeply knowledgeable on the occult, and if one takes the ride, it will be hard not to learn a thing or two along the way. It just may be that you discover less about secret societies, and more about the generally esoteric, than you would anticipate.