Arthur Goldwag's "Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies: The Straight Scoop on Freemasons, the Illuminati, Skull & Bones, Black Helicopters, the New World Order, and Many, Many More" (Vintage/Random House, 2009, $16) is a messy book about messy ideologies, and you have to read it in a messy way or you're not very likely to enjoy it.
"Cults" doesn't read like it's written to be read cover-to-cover, because it isn't structured in any kind of linear, narrative wayit doesn't really tell, or try to tell, a storybut it isn't really designed to be a reference encyclopedia, either, because it isn't organized as one.
Let's say, for example, that you're looking for the story behind Erich von Däniken, the highly eccentric alien-archaeologist best known for the 1968 bestseller "Chariots of the Gods." Do you look under "C" for chariots or "D" for von Däniken? Neither: You look under "Conspiracies" (section two of three), then read down alphabetically until you find the subsection "Area 51, Stealth Blimps, Majestic-12, and Alien Abductions," and there he is, listed alphabetically, under ... "E," for Erich. Clearly you're going to wear out the index if you use this as a reference book, because the structure of the book is unpredictable, and the table of contents is almost useless.
So how do you read it? Accidentally. Serendipitously. Messily.
You flip it open, go to a random page and just start reading. And here's the beauty of it: This actually works. Goldwag isn't afraid to repeat himself where necessary (the Roswell incident, for example, is described twice in the "Area 51 ..." section), and he's such a damn good writer that you don't really mind. You flip open a page, start reading about Madame Blatavsky; one thing leads to another, and before you know it you're 40 pages along, and he's regaling you with stories about Lyndon LaRouche.
Oh, don't get me wrong: He's thorough, and he knows his business. Goldwag is also one of those rare authors who can write about fringe topics in a way that sounds respectful and fun without him coming across like he's out of his mind. You'll learn a great deal from this book. You just won't learn it entirely on purpose.