Bits and pieces taken from emails and posts
Regardless of whom you ask on the topic, you're going to receive biased answers since everyone has his/her own view of what the best way to go about learning magick/occult topics is. I'm no different. With that in mind, here are some miscellaneous recommendations:
1. Before you do anything, ask yourself why you want to learn about magick and the occult. You need to know your motives (especially the hidden ones) for such work, due to the serious (and inevitably life-changing) nature of this type of work.
2. Some study of psychology (the works of C.G. Jung are helpful) will be useful for figuring out the very first lesson of most esoteric schools of thought. That very first lesson of study should be "Know Thyself." Knowing yourself is not an easy thing to do and although most people probably think they know themselves pretty well, most don't. It's surprising how much your subconscious can hide from you. People are extremely good at self-delusion when it comes to understanding the true motives behind their actions.
3. The study of magick and the occult is ultimately a study of one's self and the universe he/she lives in. Many people are fascinated by magick and wish to gain control over some aspect of their lives or manipulate others or gain power. This is an ego-based view and usually doesn't amount to a whole lot. The REAL power available is gained through non-ego based work. First, you learn about the 'self' and all your component parts (e.g. the parts of your psyche), and then by understanding those parts and how they fit into the broad scheme of things (e.g. the greater universe around and through you), you begin to accomplish the process of total self (re)unification. Most people function as a series of unconnected 'selves' within themselves. Their subconscious aspects are unknown to them (they can neither psychically feel nor understand the concept of various parts of their own spirit/mind), and the only frequency band available for their sensation is that of the physical realm. Magickians seek to broaden their awareness of self and how self is interconnected with the rest of the universe that they share with others. Interestingly, the more you know about yourself, the greater your understanding of the outer world. True power is gained this way as well, but usually only as a byproduct and not as a goal or end in itself (the danger implied there is that the balance of power would be more toward the human ego and less toward one's spiritual core - this would be as disadvantageous as a tree trying to cut itself off from its own roots - this undesireable state can be viewed clairvoyantly). The true magickian ignores such trappings and views the acquisition of skills (such as telekinetics etc.) as simply lessons and practice for greater spiritual awareness (non-ego related pursuits).
Note: the reason why a non-ego focus is constantly stressed on this website is due to the nature of the human ego. It is transitory, while the spiritual core (the true identity) is permanent. Since the ego gets its power from the spiritual core, it is therefore more desireable to make one's ego more like that core so as to bring its influence down into one's conscious awareness, and by linking the ego back to the core, extend one's consciousness beyond one's usual limitations. These aspects or components of one's self can be viewed clairvoyantly with accuracy and continuity across several practitioners/observers. Once you see first-hand how your components really do hook together, you wouldn't want to try to make the ego the king of all while ignoring the spiritual core within.
4. There is no one true way to go about doing anything. There are as many 'systems' for study as there are people in existence. All that matters is that you find a system that you feel compatible with when first learning (ultimately, you will end up creating your own 'system' of practice from bits and pieces of everything you learn over the years - that's normal and expected). I generally recommend trying to see through to the essence of every system, rather than getting trapped within the limited views of any one. For example, ceremonial magick has many variations in practice today. There are Golden Dawn, O.T.O., Thelemic, Solomonic, Qabalistic, Enochian, and Wiccan groups etc. Each has their own set of symbols and 'mythology', and I often notice quite a few people getting confused by such varying systems of symbolism - some of which seem to contradict other systems.
5. The best system or school of study that I've found (again, remember that I have my own biased views on this) is that of the works of Franz Bardon. My reasons for this viewpoint are simple. He doesn't waste time with convoluted symbolism (which is sometimes just a distracting device that some occult lodges use to cover up the fact that they don't know what they're talking about and possibly wouldn't know real magick if it bit them on the ass - I've seen lodges like this). His material concentrates on the essence behind all major magick techniques and practices. Rather than confusing you with a ritual without explaining how/why it works, he just has you practice spontaneous energy manipulation in full knowledge of what you are doing. The essence behind any ritual is the manipulation of energy and consciousness to cause change in conformity with the will, so he gets to the point and starts the student off with that - thus eliminating any ridiculous symbolic trappings and detours. (Many students have trouble with the works of Aleister Crowley. I personally do not recommend starting off with his writings as they can lead to much initial confusion for the beginner. If you can first obtain a firm foundation of the essence of Hermetic magick through other simpler texts, then his writings will make much more sense.) See if you can get a local bookstore to order "Initiation into Hermetics" by Franz Bardon for you, or order it directly through Amazon online at this website. It used to be only available in hardcover, which was rather expensive, but now there's a softcover version as well. I guarantee that you'll be much happier with the results of study in his system than in many others (especially if you want real results!) - it'll give you a great foundation of psychic practice and skills. Keep in mind, success will take years, but in my opinion, that text is by far the best. You can sample excerpts from it and commentaries by practitioners in Bardon's system online by following some of the links from my Links page. There's also a free version (1st translation - not as good as the current version in print) available in PDF format in the files section of the Real Magick e-list.
6. Don't waste time with Gematria (a.k.a. numerology). It's useful as a meditative exercise, especially if you're a student of Hebrew, but for the most part it usually just degenerates into mental masturbation. Real magickians (the ones who actually cause real change in the physical realm via spontaneous non-ritualized energy work a.k.a. raw psychic talent) rarely bother with it. Magick is, at its core, a purely psychic activity. It involves learning to sense and manipulate energy and (your own) consciousness to create change in conformity with the will. Of course, learning to sense things psychically in the first place will take time.
Books by Franz Bardon
Books by Robert Bruce
Books by Israel Regardie
By Dion Fortune
A few Classics of Magick:
On the Tarot:
A useful book to get if you ever want to practice magick in a group:
A very useful book if you get into Golden Dawn systems of magick:
On the Qabalah or Kabbalah:
If you decide to study the Qabalah, you'll notice that there are 2 main versions, the Hermetic Qabalah, and the Jewish Kabbalah. The Kabbalah is a system of philosophy and religious/meditational/magickal practice that has been very widely borrowed from for magickal work over the centuries. The primary glyph/symbol used in Qabalistic practice is the Tree of Life. Most people use it as a sort of map for the levels of their awareness and of the universe. There are quite a few books out there on the topic if you're interested, but it is important to realize that the Hermetic Qabalah and the Jewish Kabbalah are NOT the same thing. The Hermetic philosophers/magickians of the Renaissance era borrowed a lot from the Jewish mystics who practiced Kabbalah. Unfortunately, they didn't totally understand everything they borrowed from the Jews, so quite a few things got distorted and intentionally misused and misinterpreted. (It is important to keep in mind when researching Kabbalah/Qabalah, that Kabbalah itself is said to make very little sense without knowledge of the Torah - in many Jewish practices of Kabbalah, the Torah is seen as the key to understanding the whole system. It's been said by other authors that trying to study Kabbalah without any understanding of the Torah is like trying to learn surgery without a proper textbook on human anatomy.) One of the biggest annoyances I have with the Hermetic systems of Qabalah is that they try to associate planetary energies to the sephiroth while completely misusing and misunderstanding the nature of the sephiroth. The Jews never associated planets with sephiroth. The Hermetic 'system' of Qabalah does work, but it's not correct with regard to Jewish mysticism.
There are lots of books on Qabalah, so I won't mention them here (you can probably find some book references on my Books page). If you're interested in the roots of Kabbalah (in the Jewish mystical systems) then I highly recommend the books of Aryeh Kaplan.
A few general thoughts:
Most home study magick courses AREN'T worth the money. Almost every piece of useful occult information (i.e. techniques) has already been published in some form or another. Most of the people charging money for info and training are usually only rehashing the same crap they've borrowed from publicly available texts. Some are handing out their own philosophical and symbolic fallacies/truths for cash and are calling it 'the next best thing', but it's important to remember that what is true for one is not always true or even usable to another.
Side-note on usefulness of supposedly secret occult info: I've been fortunate enough to see a few bits and pieces of private material from some bigger name secret orders over the last few years and I can honestly say that I've yet to see anything new or unusual in any of it. When you separate the symbolic and philosophical crud from the actual techniques themselves, usually they're just using the same old standard techniques (of energy and consciousness manipulation) in different variations of ceremony with different symbolism to suit their own needs/goals. That's not to say that the information they have and keep secret (with the exception of occasional leaks) isn't useful or effective. Secrecy isn't always used for the purpose of prohibiting sacred or potent knowledge from becoming the property of the public nowadays. See - http://realmagick.tripod.com/excerpt22.html
Always try to understand the of what is actually being done with energy/consciousness in any ceremony or ritual rather than getting caught up in its dogma or structure and you'll be fine.
If you're looking for a useful workbook that starts out at the VERY beginning and slowly leads you through to a deeper understanding (through your own personal experience/effort - remember: no one can enlighten you, only YOU can become enlightened through your own efforts) then Franz Bardon's texts are certainly a great option. I've never seen another book besides "Initiation into Hermetics" that provides a training program so complete and so thorough without any extra misleading (or confusing) symbolic jargon. It concentrates primarily on the essence of magickal/psychic technique, and what it takes to develop real skill without wasting time or lying to you. Most modern occult groups will try to get you to practice things their way in their systems of terminology and mythology, and I've found myself that quite a few popular 'systems' just don't resonate well with me. However, general techniques themselves can be adapted to virtually any tradition or set of symbolism, and that's another reason why I liked Bardon's work. He has a somewhat Hermetic bias, but it's still far more universal than something such as Wicca or Thelema for example, which have well defined sets of symbolism that may not be suitable for all practitioners.
[On this site] I have an extensive page of links and lots of personal writings (mostly collected from posts from occult forums and emails in answer to questions), as well as general techniques and recommendations. Of course, my way isn't the only way. Each must find his/her own. Keep in mind that only Time, Experience, Practice, and Perseverance will help you to arrive at any deeper understanding of the universe and yourself. Be prepared to work very hard.