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What’s in a Book?

Author : Colin Biggs ©

In a departure from my usual subject matter, this essay will be devoted to a brief examination of what has hitherto constituted the primary vehicle of dissemination of information about UFO’s and related subjects: namely, the UFO book. Whether it will continue to play this role in the light of developments within the field of computer technology is a debatable question, but for the present and the immediate future, the book is the principal avenue through which the majority of those fascinated by the most baffling mystery of the modern age will pursue their quest for knowledge.

Firstly, what do I mean by a ‘good’ book? Philosophers since the time of Socrates have been debating the nature of the ‘good’, and I have neither the desire nor the expertise to compete with their sublime cogitations. Suffice it to say that in my humble opinion, a ‘good’ book, whether in the UFO field or any other, ought to embody the dual functions informing and giving pleasure. I use the work ‘pleasure’ in the widest possible sense. We derive aesthetic pleasure from that which is beautiful, balanced, harmonious, or in the case of a book, well written from a literary point of view. Intellectual pleasure can come from grappling with new and exciting ideas or following an author on their personal journey of discovery into uncharted realms, other varieties of pleasure need not detain us here.

These two primary functions of providing information and pleasure need not co-exist in equal measure, their relative proportions being determined by a number of factors. Neither should they be regarded as in opposition, but rather as complementary and mutually enhancing. To illustrate the above points, let us consider two of my favourite UFO books, one old and one new. J. Allen Hyneck’s 1972 book The UFO Experience, A Scientific Inquiry, is intended as a basic introduction to the subject for the general reader, and as such performs its function admirably, being primarily informative, as befits any book bearing the term ‘scientific’ in its title. This emphasis, however, does not prevent it from being enjoyable to read as a result of its agreeable style and presentation. On the other hand, John Mack’s 1999 book, Passport to the Cosmos, can truly be described as inspirational, elaborating as it does on the expansion of consciousness and spiritual growth that is a potential consequence of the abduction experience, and as such primarily stimulating to the aesthetic and intellectual sensibilities. Despite this orientation, Mack’s book is nevertheless solidly grounded in informational content. The ‘good’ UFO book is thus not necessarily one that combines the above mentioned dual functions in equal proportions, but rather integrates them in the manner most appropriate to the book’s purpose as determined by its authors intention and motivations.

It should be emphasised at this point that an author’s individual agenda, biases, or particular slant on the UFO issue ought to have no bearing on the worth or otherwise of a UFO book. One is not ‘better’ than another because it adopts a more scientific approach, for example. Each author is perfectly entitled to put their own ‘spin’ on what is, after all, a multi-faceted topic of vast scope and ramifications. It is just such individual perspectives which throw light on obscure, perhaps unexplored aspects of the UFO problem. People of particular professional or cultural backgrounds can often supply valuable insights and interpret the available evidence in novel ways. For example, Ivan Sanderson has written an excellent UFO book (Uninvited Visitors, 1967) from the standpoint of a professional biologist. Barry Doconing performed a similar service from a theological perspective (The Bible and Flying Saucers, 1970). One of the 20th century’s greatest psychologist, Carl Jung, made his contribution to the debate as viewed through the lens of modern psychology (Flying Saucers, A Modern Myth of things Seen in the Sky, 1959). One would be foolish to deride Sanderson, for example, for failing to consider paranormal aspects of the UFO problem when such clearly falls beyond his purview. None of the above, I am sure, would be so rash as to insist that theirs in the only possible avenue of approach to the UFO subject. It is only when investigators (some scientists are especially prone to this tendency) vehemently assert that their particular line of approach is the only valid way of evaluating the evidence that problems arise. Such dogmatism ought to have no place in ufological circles. Thus, a ‘good’ UFO book is not dependent on the particular approach, bias or view point of author as long as they are consistent in their approach and recognise the validity of alternative points of view.

Judging the quality of a book is of necessity a highly subjective exercise, as it would be of any work of art of or creative effort. How we accomplish this exercise is dependent on our background, preferences, level of education, aesthetic sensibilities and other factors. However, the various elements that determine our appreciation or otherwise of a particular book can probably be subsumed under two broad headings. The first concerns those aspects of a purely literary nature, such as the presentation and style to which I referred in a previous paragraph. The second concerns the books factual content. I shall now consider each of these in turn.

Perhaps the best measure of an author’s success is the ability to communicate, ie. to reach out to the intended readership in a manner best calculated to stimulate and maintain a readers interest throughout the course of an entire book. There should be an orderly, logical progression of thought and ideas from one point to the next, as opposed to disjointed rambling. Some pitfalls to be avoided include overlong sentence structure, long, unnecessary digressions, needless repetition, etc. An author should avoid playing ‘tricks’ on the reader through the use of non-sequitous or other subtle literary devices. A clear division should be drawn between what the author is presenting as hard fact and their own personal opinion, speculation or interpretation. The above observations are all fairly obvious and could be applied to any work of literature. Of more particular relevance to UFO books would be an admonition to avoid unnecessary polemic or vituperative attacks upon other researchers or any who chance to disagree with ones cherished point of view. The latter is perhaps inevitable in a field that generates such strong emotions and violently conflicting opinions, and it cannot be denied that some of the parties most frequently attacked, eg. military forces engaged in cover-ups and scientists in denial, fully deserve a sound verbal lashing. Constant attack of this kind, however, can rapidly become tiresome for the general reader, and are best confined to the pages of UFO journals.

One particular source of irritation for me (and I am sure we have all come across it at some stage) is the UFO book consisting of little more than endless lists of sightings, mostly of the fairly uninspiring ‘lights in the sky’ category, succeeding one another in mind-numbing monotony, far more effective than counting sheep as a means of inducing sleep. This is not the way to perk a readers interest, let alone the sense of awe and wonder attendant upon the UFO mystery. If it is absolutely necessary to include large numbers of sightings, eg. if one is presenting a detailed historical record of all UFO activity within a defined time period or spatial zone, the author should attempt by any available means to reduce the inevitable boredom, interrupting the dreary succession of sightings with frequent discussion and commentary.

When something more exciting than CEI’s and CEII’s (‘close encounters’ of the first and second kind) is involved, the above admonition is less applicable. For example, Jim and Coral Lorenzen’s 1975 book Encounters With UFO Occupants consists, for the most part, of a long succession of occupant encounter reports. Monotony is largely avoided, however, by the utterly bizarre nature of the material being presented, and the uniqueness of each individual case. As a general rule though, it is probably better in terms of reader interest to focus on a few, more spectacular sightings and encounters rather than spread one’s coverage over too wide a field. Indeed, some of the most interesting UFO books are restricted to a detailed examination of a limited range of material, eg. John Fuller’s Incident at Exeter and The Interrupted Journey, both published in 1966.

As a further aid to reader comprehension, the ‘good’ UFO book should pay due regard to appropriate division into chapters and any other necessary internal subdivisions corresponding to changes in theme or content. A basic an obvious strategy, perhaps, but one seemingly forgotten by many aspiring UFO writers, either from carelessness or the rush to get into print. A clear internal structure is particularly important in introductory works on the subject where the enquiring neophyte is presented with a vast, apparently chaotic mass of unfamiliar material and violently conflicting opinions regarding that material. Order and simplicity should be the watchwords in introductory works, and two books which admirably fulfil these requirements, in my opinion, are J. Allen Hyneck’s The UFO Experience: A Scientific Enquiry (1972), and Otto Binder’s What We Really Know About Flying Saucers (1967). In the former, Hyneck arranges his material according to the now commonly accepted categories of Close Encounters of the First, Second and Third Kinds. Binder follows a different tack, preferring to organise his material into chapters dealing with different aspects of UFO/occupants’ appearances and behaviours, eg. shapes, colours, manoeuvres, possible propulsion systems, frequency of sightings etc, all illustrated with brief relevant examples from the UFO files in a well thought out programme calculated to elicit maximum comprehension from any reader of average intelligence.

Finally, it should go without saying that all quotations from other writers should be duly acknowledged within the text. Important ideas derived form other researchers should also be acknowledged, preferably in a small subsection at the beginning of the book. All works consulted should appear in the bibliography. It is better that footnotes appear on the same page as the text to which they refer, though this is more a matter of personal preference.

So much for the literary aspects of the UFO book, what of the books factual content? The first point to consider here, and one of the most important, is simple accuracy. This too is an aspect seemingly ignored by may over-enthusiastic investigators (especially, I have noticed, those of a journalistic bent) who often commit the most appalling blunders in the narration of their stories. Names of witnesses are often misspelled; the date, time of day, duration and location of sightings are inaccurately rendered; witness accounts and descriptions become distorted out of all recognition; and inaccurate accounts tend to be repeated, parrot fashion, by writer after writer without checking the facts as to what originally occurred. To be fair, this is not always the authors fault. Once a particularly spectacular sighting has become public property, so to speak, it is at the mercy of competing journalists, who often muddy the waters so much with their casual disregard of the facts that more sober researchers who arrive on the scene after the initial furore has subsided, are often hard pressed to ascertain exactly what happened.

The vagaries of witness recollection are a further potential source of inaccuracy. Proximity or location in regard to a particular craft or occupants, the emotional state of the witnesses, their interpretation of what they are seeing and other factors can result in wildly different versions of the same event. It is incumbent upon the investigator intending to write about a UFO incident to track down all witnesses to the sighting, if such is possible, and attempt to compile a coherent account of the total event. This problem is multiplied manyfold when investigating a case 50 years old, for example, as evidenced in recent books attempting to unravel the mystery of the Roswell crash. Military and government cover-ups and the deliberate spread of disinformation only exacerbates an already difficult problem. Inaccuracies are probably inevitable in such situations, but the inherent difficulties of UFO research should not be used as an excuse for simple carelessness.

The amount of detail to include on any given sighting or encounter will be governed by considerations of available space within the overall structure of the chapter or book, the quality of the encounter itself, the degree to which it has been researched, the contribution it makes to the particular theme the author is trying to develop, and the readership at which it is aimed. A writer of a more scientific bent would be more likely to convey more precise details of time, location, witness profile and technical aspects of a UFO’s appearance or performance than one not some inclined, but this does not necessarily make one approach ‘better’ than another. Excessive detail can obfuscate as well as illuminate, and the ‘better’ author, in this respect, would be the one who most skilfully chooses the really essential points at the expense of irrelevant detail. A perfect example of the tendency to focus on extraneous detail to the detriment of essentials is the 1998 book by Dr Roger Leir, The Aliens and the Scalpel, an examination of the first documented discovery of alleged alien implants from UFO abductees. What should have been an opus of earth shattering import is reduced to the banal by an over-emphasis on unnecessary and irrelevant details. In one notorious example, Leir tells of a group meeting in a California restaurant in which we are informed of the number of tables in the restaurant, their contents, the colour of the tablecloths, and (I kid you not) even the precise number of inches said tablecloths draped over the edges of the tables (R. Leir, 1998, p179). In contrast, important details concerning the recovered implants themselves are treated in a perfunctory fashion.

Do photographs necessarily enhance a UFO book? I am sure we have all encountered books in which the photographs fail to dovetail with anything in the written text, or are simply superfluous, eg. photos of a sighting location from five different angles where one would perfectly suffice. Most irritating of all, however, are photos of alleged UFO’s that show nothing but meaningless points or blobs of light against a perfectly featureless night sky. It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but this is often far from being the case. This kind of ‘evidence’ conveys no information whatever to the general reader (though it may to the scientific investigator, which is another matter), and is best omitted from books f a general nature. Only photographs of direct relevance to the text or with a clear informational content deserve inclusion in such books. Of greater value, in my opinion, is the diagram or drawing of a UFO event, a device which is sorely under-utilised in ufological literature. This is capable of providing, at a moments glance, most relevant details of a sighting with regard to relative positions of object and witnesses, together with a visual image of the craft (or occupants) far superior to a blurred or featureless photograph. Such artistic renderings should preferably be in the witnesses own hand, but if the latter feel inadequate to the task, a drawing executed by others more artistically gifted, securely based on the witnesses specifications, is perfectly satisfactory.

An excellent example of appropriate utilisation of drawings and diagrams can be found in Ray Fowlers 1990 book The Watchers, in which numerous wonderfully rendered illustrations complement and enliven the often obscure descriptions in the written text.

What group of persons have tended to write the best UFO books over the years? We cannot all be professional authors when we are first introduced to the UFO subject, such as Whitley Strieber, a well established writer of horror fiction, or John Mack, a Pulitzer Prize winner, no less. The quality of their efforts in the field of abduction research certainly reflect their high literary credentials. As a general (but not invariable) rule, I have noticed that when scientists finally manage to liberate themselves from the myopia, cynicism and disinterested ignorance of the majority of their colleagues and begin to study the UFO subject seriously, they are capable of producing some of the best work in their field, due in large part to the intellectual rigours of their scientific training and the habits of discipline and orderly presentation instilled thereby. Among such scientific authors deserving of special mention are Jacques Vallee, J. Allen Hynick and Ivan Sanderson. Scientific UFO writers, however, often display a distressing tendency to assert that theirs is the only valid and proper means to investigate the UFO problem. Science degrees alone, unfortunately, do not confer literary ability, a fact illustrated all too well by a recent (1999) book by Dr R. Leo Sprinkle, Soul Samples: Personal Explorations in Reincarnation and UFO Experiences, which despite its promising title, could best be described as a series of disconnected ramblings. Sprinkle may have a host of academic journal articles to his credit, but he has no idea how to write a book for the general reader.

Some of the worst UFO books, I have found, tend to be written by journalists. Their approach is often of the gee-whiz, gung-ho, sensationalist kind, and the factual content of their books is often riddled with inaccuracies. Yet even here there are exceptions to the rule, notably the fine contributions of John Fuller (the afore-mentioned Incident at Exeter and The Interrupted Journey, 1966). The most mixed results, however, are likely to be found among the ranks of the non-scientific, non-journalistic amateur who becomes deeply fascinated by the UFO subject and pursues it as a lifelong passion. This includes most of us. And all we can do is to try to convey our ideas and experiences in the best way we know based on our abilities, professional backgrounds, educational levels etc. Among this much wider category, may UFO writers have successfully managed to combine a reasonable degree of enthusiasm with a sufficiently healthy dose of rigour and discipline to produce works of considerable merit. Notable among this group are Jim and Coral Lorenzen, Budd Hopkins, Timothy Good, Ray Fowler and Richard Thomson. Finally, there has been an increasing trend in recent years for actual experiencers, especially abductees, to write first hand about their encounters, while books by those claiming special relationships with or revelations from UFO entities have continued without let-up into the present time. Once again, the end results of their efforts constitute a very mixed bag.

Finally, I would like to suggest just one further criterion by which we may evaluate the worth of a ‘good’ UFO book. Has the author managed to communicate that sense of mystery, awe, wonder and excitement associated with a quest into the unknown? We must not lose sight of the fact that UFO’s constitute a problem with potentially earth shaking consequences for all mankind, and the author who successfully conveys that sense of the mysterious, the excitement of the quest for the ‘Holy Grail’, if you like, is being more true to the nature of the subject, and is more likely to elicit a positive response from their readership. It is here that writers with a more scientific orientation may be at a slight disadvantage with their emphasis on dry facts and figures. It is all a matter of appropriate balance and proportion. We must not allow our sense of awe and wonder to run amok to the extent that we abandon all reason and restraint. Books of this nature soon become nothing but a confused welter of over-enthusiastic speculation (eg. E. Von Daniken)

I have only scratched the surface of the subject in the course of this essay. UFO Encounter readers who surely have collectively devoured thousands of different UFO books over the years, may have very different ideas on the nature of a ‘good’ UFO book, and that is perfect all right. It is all a highly subjective exercise. I hereby conclude, not with a bibliography, but with a list of my top ten favourite UFO books of all time, in no particular order of merit. Each reader of this journal will doubtless have their own favourites, but mine are:


Bibliography
Binder, Otto 1967, What We Really Know About Flying Saucers,
Fawcett Fowler, Ray 1990, The Watchers, Bantam
Good, Timothy 1998, Alien Base: Earths Encounters with Extraterrestrials, Century
Hyneck, J. Allen 1972, The UFO Experience: A Scientific Enquiry, Corgi
Lorenzen, Coral & Jim 1976, Encounters with UFO Occupants, Berkley
Mack, John 1999, Passport to the Cosmos, Cowen
Sanderson, Ian 1967, Uninvited Visitors, Cowles
Strieber, Whitley 1995, Breakthrough: The Next Step, Harper Collins
Thompson, Richard 1993, Alien Identities, Govardhan Hill
Vallee, Jacques 1965, Anatomy of a Phenomenon, Neville Spearman

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