The life that a book takes on after its publication can largely be a mystery. However much we can learn about the writing of a book and its publication, once it goes out into the world it is almost impossible to know everyone who bought the book and exactly what their experiences with it were among thousands and thousands of readers. The Kybalion is no exception. In the century since its first publication it has been cherished by its readers, but mostly unknown to the public at large, existing as an influential but underground classic.
One of the best windows we can have on to the reception and reaction to The Kybalion (especially in the time before online message boards and Amazon.com reviews) is through people whose mentions of The Kybalion and references to its Seven Hermetic Principles have found their way to print. For the most part, this group consists of people who were notable in their own right. We know that the French poet, actor and creator of the term “Theater of Cruelty,” Antonin Artaud, read The Kybalion. Norman Vincent Peale, the author of The Power Positive Thinking, was aware of the teachings of The Kybalion, if not directly than certainly through the writings of Florence Scovel Shinn. During the Reagan administration a Harvard PhD named Eileen Gardner was fired from her post at the Department of Education after only three days when her unorthodox views, partially inspired by The Kybalion, came to light in an uproar of public outrage. (It seems that most people were not comfortable with her view that handicapped children “summon” their problems to themselves…) And with a reference in his latest novel, it is clear that the best-selling contemporary author Dan Brown also knows of The Kybalion.
The book was also significant to at least two famous television actors. In a 2006 segment for the trade paper Daily Variety, Roseanne Barr listed The Kybalion as one of five books “that mean(t) a lot to ” her. More than just having a lot of meaning, The Kybalion was described in a 1982 profile for TV Guide as a life-altering book for Sherman Hemsley, better known for playing the character of George Jefferson on the sitcom The Jeffersons. Hemsley grew up in the Pentecostal church, but according to his own account left at the age of 9, eventual finding his way into a serious practice of meditation and mysticism. He was coy about what the catalyst for this transformation was, referring only to “the man with the book,” a kindly stranger he met that gave him a powerful text. Unlike Sherman Hemsley, his business partner Andre Pavon was more direct when he described Hemsley passing that same book on to him. “He gave me that (book) and others. ‘The Kybalion.’ It changed my life. He told me, ‘You got to read it, man.'”
Sherman Hemsley’s relationship with The Kybalion was a common one. In researching The Kybalion, I’ve repeatedly come across stories of people discovering the book after a passionate recommendation from a bookseller, mentor or friend. The important role it has had on one reader gets passed on as they recommend it to others as a book that has changed the way they think and see the world. While the claims in The Kybalion that it was part of an ancient, guarded tradition that was passed down “from mouth to ear” are dubious, it certainly has been part of another tradition closer to our own time and experience. In the past century The Kybalion has lived as a beloved and well-worn book passed from the hand of one friend to another and earnestly recommended from the mouth of one seeker to another in living rooms, bookstores and coffee shops, thousands and thousands of times.