Some years ago, mentalist Bob Cassidy published “The Thirty-Nine Steps – A Mentalist’s Library of Essential Works” a list of what he considered the most important books for a mentalist to be familiar with. He undoubtedly was inspired by his hero Ted Annemann’s list first printed in The Jinx in 1936, called The Jinx Five-Foot Shelf. The idea of TJFFS was to put together a list of books that would be foundational texts in the arts of magic. The ground rules were that you had five feet of shelf space to work with, all the books had to still be in print, and the primary purpose of the list was to pick out those books that would best help beginners start in magic and continue on as their skills and knowledge grew.
On several of the magic forums, some people are putting together their own more recent lists; Jeff Kowalk in particular has a very nice series of videos he’s produced which you can see here. I thought I would contribute my own list, based on books that I’ve owned or read. As a little update to the rules, I do not allow ebooks or DVDs—not that ‘s there anything wrong with them. (Perhaps one day I will do a post on the great Books vs Video debate.) Also, if a book is out of print but is readily available through second-hand sources, I allow it.
I figure I can fit about ten average volumes in a foot of shelf space, so here are my nominees for the first foot, which I’ll call Getting Started:
Magic For Dummies by David Pogue: I rarely see this book on lists of this kind, but it’s a great introductory book that teaches a variety of magic without overwhelming the reader. There are contributions in each chapter from some famous modern magicians, but the real contribution is that it teaches from the get-go that magic is a performing art, more than just a collection of methods. It encourages readers to create compelling presentations, not just learn the moves. There are some great tricks in here, pretty much self-working in terms of method, but even if you’re more advanced in magic you’ll find some usable material here. Hot tip—Don’t let the Dummies in the title put you off: on page 64, you’ll find a method that fooled Penn & Teller a few weeks ago.
Hiding the Elephant by Jim Steinmeyer: A practitioner of any art should have a knowledge of its history, and that’s certainly true of magic. Steinmeyer, who is one of the great modern illusion designers, is also one of modern magic’s best historians. By telling the story of Houdini’s disappearing elephant—and how it might have been accomplished—Steinmeyer introduces the reader to a whole cast of larger than life personalities and what it was like to be a stage magician in a rough and tumble, competitive performing era. But more than that, he gets you inside of magical thinking—what is it to imagine an effect and then to invent a way to bring it to fruition?
The Glorious Deception by Jim Steinmeyer: Another great magic history book by Steinmeyer, it tells the wild story of Englishman Will Robinson, who performed as a Chinese-born magician under the name of Chung Ling Soo. Robinson started out as the backstage assistant and “brains” for several famous nineteenth-century magicians, but his biggest trick—his secret double life—was not discovered until he died in a Bullet Catch trick that went wrong—or did it? Steinmeyer writes books that you would read even if you were not into magic—they’re that full of vivid writing, period detail, compelling action, and some of the most colorful characters in show business. It helps the reader to understand that s/he’s stepping into a deep tradition, and has something to uphold.
Royal Road to Card Magic by Frederick Braue and Jean Hugard: Most people learn a few card tricks along the way, but when you’re ready to get more serious about cards, this is the place to start. It’s an absolute model of how-to-do-it pedagogy. Each chapter adds a new sleight, incrementally, and then teaches a few tricks that focus on that sleight. By the time you reach the end of the book, if you’ve been following it, you are well on your way to card magic mastery.
Some people recommend Roberto Giobbi’s five volume Card College as the more modern place to begin with card magic. There’s no doubt that Card College is quite an achievement, and its teaching is impeccable. But I find Card College dry, better used as a reference resource than a series of books to be read straight through. There’s a ton of information in Card College, but for beginners I would still recommend Royal Road over the Giobbi series. Royal Road is inexpensive, the teaching is very good, and there are some wonderful tricks in there that you will do for the rest of your life.
Fast Track Coin Magic by Al Schneider: Here, I’m again going to go against what a lot of people recommend for a first coin book. People invariably recommend J. B. Bobo’s Modern Coin Magic as the place for beginners interested in coin magic to begin. Frankly, I think Bobo’s is a horrible book for beginners. It’s cramped descriptions are difficult to follow, it’s illustrations are not helpful, and it’s massive size is way too much information for a beginner in coins.
Coin magic is famously one of the most difficult branches of magic in which to achieve mastery. It’s very reliant on what can be difficult sleight of hand. It also depends a lot on the timing and co-ordination of the two hands’ movements. A written description of a deceptive two-handed coin vanish may take very few words—but if the timing is slightly off, there’s no illusion. Frankly, I think coin magic is the one area of magic where video illustration is of immense help.
But if you’re limited to books, I’d go with this Al Schneider book. It goes over the fundamental sleights well with lots of clear photos and explanations, and it has directions for coin tricks with a variety of plots. You won’t find much in the way of presentation scripts, but Schneider does give the bare bones with which to add your own personality. Once you finish this book you’ll be much better equipped to dive into other coin books, including Bobo’s.
Mark Wilson Complete Course In Magic by Mark Wilson: Mark Wilson had a tremendously successful weekly magic show in the 1960s on Saturday mornings and here you’ll find a big book of entertaining magic with kid-friendly illustrations. It covers the range of magic—cards, coins, ropes, mentalism, and even platform illusions that you can make yourself. It’s kind of like a Forest Gump box of magic. It even includes whole routines for sponge balls and a section on impromptu magic. If you’re thinking about putting together a school show, this is a great place to start. Even for an experienced performer there is some surprisingly good material here. A lot of bang for the buck.
Magic With Everyday Objects by George Schindler: This is a great book for doing magic in casual settings like the dinner table or office. Technically, most of the tricks are not difficult, and it’s nice to have a repertoire of tricks that you can perform at a moment’s notice in just about any situation.
Scripting Magic (Volumes I & 2) by Pete McCabe and others: These are must have books. At a certain point you realize that if you’re going to spend time working to perform your magic for actual people and not just the mirror, your time is best invested by scripting your magic. McCabe gives dozens of examples of how a good script can take a trick from the mundane to the astounding. And as a bonus, there are lots of wonderful tricks–with scripts!–from some excellent magicians.
Theater of the Mind by Barrie Richardson: I have a special place in my heart for this book because it was the first magic book I ever purchased as an adult. And I was very lucky that I did. Not just because of the sheer volume of clever magical thinking per cubic inch, but because of the humanistic approach that Barrie Richardson takes towards his magic. His warm, kind-heartedness shines through the whole book and his magic; in an entertainment form that too often uses audience members as props, Barrie implicitly teaches a generous attitude which is one of the most important lessons a performer can learn. Some of the material is not beginner level, but there’s so much more to this book than just the tricks. And Barrie gives full scripts and presentations for each of the effects. He urges performers to keep thinking about what they ultimately want an audience to experience and walk out with.