Books on how to read Tarot cards are dime-a-dozen. (Figuratively, at least; Hermes help me, I wish they were cheaper.) Good books on the Tarot are fewer and further between, and most of them are associated with a particular deck – there are entire libraries, for example, dedicated to the Crowley&Harrison’s Thoth deck, alone. For a generalist book, though, you can hardly do better than this one.
Robert M. Place stand out from other Tarot writers, first and foremost, in that he can distinguish between myth and history. The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination actually has a chapter devoted to each. Unlike many authors, who subscribe to the mythical history wholesale, Place recognizes that the symbolism of the Major Arcana cannot be traced further back than Renaissance Italy, and goes to great length to prove his point, citing a number of studies and histories patently ignored by many in the New Age community, romantically attached as they are to the idea of ancient (even prehistoric) origins. He then goes on to describe and debunk the mythic history, showing where Levi and others invented the Tarot they needed, ultimately culminating in the well-known Waite-Smith deck.
From there, Place traces the individual symbols in many of the cards, providing a clear insight into their historical meanings and contexts. He describes the divinatory and symbolic meanings of the Waite-Smith illustrations (more commonly known as the Rider-Waite deck, a name which credits the corporate publishers over the female artist). He cites Waite and Smith’s memoirs, notes, and letters, giving us further insight into the origin of the modern Tarot deck.
Finally, he has a chapter on layouts, which – to my delight – overlooks the overused Celtic Cross and includes an expanded version of the Twelve Houses spread. It even starts with some general discussion of the theory behind various layouts.
Place, Robert M. the Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print.