November 13th, 2011

_Psychic Roots_, Hank Z Jones

Subtitled: Serendipity and Intuition in Genealogy

It's a measure of how badly I want to read a book that I'm willing to buy it in p-form.

Jones' story is odd, no matter how you look at it. He got really interested in genealogy when he was very young (his interest wasn't necessarily piqued younger than me, but actively working on it from a very tender age). If you're wondering if he's the Jones of Disney film and elsewhere, the short answer is, yes. Part of the story he tells in this book is the genealogical work that had already been done by the generations immediately before him -- and the massive fascination with the Palatines he developed when he encountered that branch/those branches of his family tree. I've got several of his volumes on the Palatines on my shelf -- he does good work.

I have highly ambiguous feelings about books about mysticism/serendipity/psychic phenomena, etc. I do not (and I realize this may come as a surprise to some of my regular readers) immediately disbelieve. However, I do expect people to do a thorough job of perspective-taking on weird experiences and to allow for alternative explanations. Many, many, many of the stories told in this book come under one of two headings. (1) After repeatedly trying and failing, it should not come as a complete surprise that sometimes, things just work. And yet it is human nature to think, after such a long string of failures, it might have been external influence. (2) Domain knowledge matters. A ton. We frequently don't know how much domain knowledge we've developed, much less how our brain is rallying that information when we "guess" or "wander".

That said, there were some stories in the book that were entertainingly spooky. And they are all genealogical research stories, which makes them super fun for me, anyway. There's a second one. I've ordered it. Jones prose is deceptive -- this is true of a lot of genealogical story telling. It goes fast and feels breezy, but the level of detail to make sense of the individual pieces is astonishing, much less to grok the whole that those pieces contribute to, so it will reward rereading.