- The Psychic Tests: An Adventure in the World of Believers and Sceptics. By Gary Nunn. Pantera Press. $32.99.
Books about psychic phenomena tend to fall into one of two categories. There are books by the alleged psychics themselves or (apparent) true believers, fervently proclaiming the unprovable. Then there are books by sceptics, debunking psychic claims with varying levels of vitriol and glee.
This book, by Gary Nunn, a longtime journalistic presence in both Australia and Britain, is neither. It's more in the curious, investigative vein of a writer like Jon Ronson, without the faux naivete in which the latter sometimes indulges. And it combines the exploratory with a personal element that's engaging and sympathetic rather than coming off as self-indulgent, as well as some food for thought, even for a sceptical person like me.
Not only is Nunn looking into tarot cards, psychics, astrology and similar subjects, he's also interested in why some people - otherwise intelligent and rational - still believe in them and why they might, in some circumstances, be useful.
Nunn begins with a prologue in which, at a Fruits in Suits gay professional networking group event, he has a psychic reading. Having had his father and grandmother die relatively recently, he's in an emotionally vulnerable state - and thus, a cynic might say, easy prey.
Some of what the psychic comes across as basic cold reading - vague statements, lucky guesses and working from the subject's reactions and replies. But the psychic does make one specific prediction that either will or will not come true.
Nunn revisits this later, but in between he presents a series of interviews, historical accounts, experiences and observations that are sometimes moving, sometimes amusing, sometimes disturbing, but always interesting.
He's sceptical but sympathetic, a combination that makes for an unusual perspective.
High-ranking businesspeople and public servants, stockbrokers and policemen are among those who have relied on the advice of astrologers and psychics, which might give some people pause.
Former US president Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy used astrology in planning schedules though not, the former president said, in forming policies or decision making. This isn't very reassuring.
Nunn also talks to professional sceptics who say that the psychics who aren't outright frauds are self-delusional but well meaning, mistaking good people skills - empathy, an ability to listen - for something more.
It's suggested psychics should undertake training in counselling or a related field to better use their skills. I'd argue there are plenty of people qualified to help without the "woowoo" factor.
Nunn talks about the place psychics have had in societies - sometimes giving people, especially women, a status they might not otherwise have attained.
And he says that psychics can provide human connection and comfort in a world of chaos and confusion, though, again, I'm not sure they're needed for this.
He discusses particular practitioners (some well known, others less so) and talks to believers - including his own sister - as well as reporting his own psychic consultations.
Nunn eventually reaches his own conclusions and readers will too.
Whatever your views on the subject, The Psychic Tests an entertaining, informative, personal and thought-provoking book.