Tarot Outside the Box by Valerie Sim
Review by Diane Wilkes

If you would like to purchase this book, click here.

The online tarot community is relatively small, so I find myself more often than not reviewing books by friends and acquaintances. Tarot Outside the Box is no exception; I have been friendly with the author of the book for many years.  While I don't normally see the need to mention this in reviews, it is particularly significant with this book because tarot enthusiasts who actively research and read about the subject online, and, particularly, members of the Comparative Tarot e-list, may see this book differently than individuals who do not use or recognize the Internet as a primary informational resource for their work with tarot.

This is, perhaps, a long-winded way of saying that much of the material in this book will be fresh and innovative if you aren't as active on the Internet on the subject of tarot as I am. But that does not take away from the fact that this book does offer some well-explicated creative approaches to the tarot, one of which the author herself popularized (if not invented): Comparative Tarot.

What is Comparative Tarot? Let the author's words speak for themselves:

"Comparative Tarot is a method of studying and reading the cards that utilizes the subtle nuances of meaning found in the same cards as depicted in different decks."

In other words, when you draw a particular card you compare it to other deck's versions of the card. While I had heard of the technique before coming across Valerie's email list, I rarely used it. After years of using and teaching the Comparative Tarot (CT) method, I am a big fan because it's a technique that can be both playful and profound, enlarging and expanding a message or insight.

Sim expounds on the method at some length. First, she offers two three card readings using the CT method with various decks. Unfortunately, the cards are not shown and this technique is very image-based. If you don't have one of the decks used, it is nearly impossible to follow the reading with any degree of interaction. While I enjoyed reading Valerie's exposition on 20 different versions of the Nine of Cups, the images are rarely on the same page as the description! Some are not included at all. Most people have not committed these cards to memory (nor have seen some or all of them). It's a shame that there was not a conscious effort to make sure more of the cards match their descriptions on the page, and if an image wasn't available for publication, it might have been better to eschew including it entirely.

One of the most fascinating examples of the CT method is Valerie's reading using the Comparative Tarot deck published by Lo Scarabeo. She answers four questions using one card--because that one card contains four different versions of the card in the Comparative Tarot deck. Again, though, it is extremely frustrating not to be able to look at the actual card she uses for the reading. It also makes no sense--Llewellyn distributes Lo Scarabeo decks. Why in Heaven's name weren't they able to show that card?

Valerie shares another technique, Combination Tarot, which involves reading with two (or more) different decks, and pulling two (or more) cards for each position in the spread, one from each deck. If you have a particular oracle (non-tarot) deck you like using, so much the better--"combine" it with the tarot card for each spread position.

There are several other techniques that Valerie covers in the book, but if I explain each of them, you might be tempted to eschew buying the book. This would be a mistake--it really helps to read about each approach, lovingly and knowledgably described by the author. She clearly has intimate relationships with her numerous tarot decks and willingly shares the secrets she has picked up over the years from her polyamorous tÍte-a-tÍtes.

My reference to polyamoury is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but one thinks of a kind of openness when it comes to "outside the box" relationships. What I value most in this book is Valerie's openness to all the possibilities of the tarot, even as she honors and respects tarot tradition. She encourages the reader to experiment and "play" and push the boundaries of the known. As the Reconstructionist Jews say, tradition has a voice, not a veto, and Sim transfers that ethos to her work with the tarot.

The intended readership of this book is said to be the advanced tarotist, but I think this is misleading. None of the techniques in Tarot Outside the Box is particularly complex and many of them have been discussed on tarot-focused email lists over the years. I can see beginners (and those who are unfamiliar with tarot email lists) gaining enormously from many of the methods Sim describes in her book. I have taught most of them to beginners or those who had recently completed my beginner's class. The only practice that might be somewhat challenging is the use of Elemental Dignities, and Valerie's discussion of the topic is basic enough that a bright novice should be able to follow it with some degree of confidence.  The book is written in a very readable and personal style, and beginners would benefit greatly from Sim's sample readings.

On the other hand, a tarot reader with only one deck might find the CT and Combination Tarot discussions bemusing. While there are many tarot enthusiasts who collect decks with great rapacity (and I must admit to considerable personal deck lust), there are collectors who have never used their cards for reading and fabulous long-time readers who have only one deck. The book's real audience is those individuals who enjoy owning and using more than one deck, whether they are tarot professionals or have just bought their first deck...or three.

Tarot Out of the Box by Valerie Sim
Publisher: Llewellyn Worldwide
ISBN #: 0738702773

If you would like to purchase this book, click here.

Review and page © 2004 Diane Wilkes