It’s been quite a while since the three prior installments of this series (which you can see here, here and here) but perhaps the time off has been a good thing. In the previous installment, I limited myself to books that were generally in print–this time I went a bit more afield, though most of these books below are still pretty obtainable, though not necessarily in print anymore. I’ve also included books that I had either overlooked, or had already written about in other contexts, or simply had not owned or read before.
Switch by John Lovick: This is the last word in what has come to be known as the Hundred Dollar Bill Switch. There are dozens of variations and techniques taught in close detail, both tip and tipless, worth getting under your belt.
Act Two by Barrie Richardson: Richardson is one of my favorite magic writers and his books are overflowing with excellent mental magic plots, scripts, and methods. This book contains my favorite—and possibly easiest–parlor ACAAN effect.
Before We Begin by Asi Wind: This is a brilliant book that fills a neglected but important technique of mentalism. After reading this book with its very detailed scripts you might change your mind as I did, and consider the usefulness and effectiveness of this technique.
The Devil’s Staircase by Greg Chapman and Details of Deception by Greg Chapman: I’ve written about these two books on this blog before, so see those essays for more details, but in brief, these two books of Greg’s are filled with unique gambling type card routines, sleights and tools that will leave audiences with no possible explanation.
Approaching Magic by David Regal: all of Regal’s material is great, and in this big book there is a wealth of card, coin and parlor effects. Regal’s magic always has a strong premise and script, and his methods are often ingenious. This book also has some wonderful essays and will keep you busy for a long time. A desert island kind of book.
Smoke and Mirrors by John Bannon: Like David Regal, Bannon’s close-up card and coin effects are fun and ingenious, and any of his books are worth picking up. I like this early book best as I think it has some of his strongest magic in it for casual tabletop performance.
Magic For Young Lovers by Andy of the Jerx: this book is probably the hardest book on the list to find now–it was offered a few years ago to subscribers to Andy’s blog. When I read it, I thought it was one of the best magic books I’d ever read, outlining an approach to magic that really resonated with me. It conveyed what a true magic experience should encompass. This may sound strange, but I’ve never opened it since my first reading of it, because I’ve been reluctant to disturb the memory of what a great experience it was to read it that first time.
Outs, Precautions and Challenges by Charles H. Hopkins: I’ve written about this before on my blog, and it’s a fun little booklet to read. It’s kind of old-fashioned and maybe promises more than it delivers, but it presents a good outline of the problems a performer can face and some possible solutions.
In Order To Amaze by Pit Hartling: This is a must for memdeck workers. As powerful a tool that a memdeck is, the most difficult part of devising magic for it in my opinion has always been in creating entertaining plots and presentations for those effects. Pit Hartling’s ideas and scripts are superb and set this book apart from many others using the same tool.
The Magic of Alan Wakeling by Jim Steinmeyer: I don’t do much stage magic so I can’t say this is a book that I go back to many times, but it is a fascinating look at the mind of an incredibly ingenious designer and performer of stage illusions. The section alone on the Think-a-Drink plot and apparatus is inspiring.
The Annotated Erdnase by S. W. Erdnase and Darwin Ortiz: Eventually if you’re into cards you know one day you are going to have to eat your spinach, and Ortiz’s annotated version of Erdnase is a delightful way to do it. In this large hard bound book, Erdnase’s text is on the inside portion of the double page, while Ortiz’s commentary is in the outer margins. The commentary covers much historical and technical information that makes the journey even more tasty.
Routined Manipulation Finale by Lewis Ganson: I included this book because I think poor Lewis Ganson generally gets a raw deal as a magic writer. He tends to be dismissed because he is generally describing the work of other great magicians such as Dai Vernon, but his books are generally full of wonderful material. For the life of me, I can’t understand why this book, available in paperback, is not referenced more often. I think the contents rival the material in the Stars of Magic book. There are effects in here from Fred Kaps, Pat Page, Ali Bongo, Al Koran, Alex Elmsley, and more.
Faro Fundamentalsby Greg Chapman: I’ve written about this book on the blog before so see that essay for more detail. This 52-page booklet would be my go-to recommendation to learn not only how to faro but some excellent uses of it. Even if you already do a faro, you’ll find information in here that you may not have seen before that will help you get the most out of it.
Kurt Vonnegut’s humorous and fantastical novels are all still in print today. Certainly, if you were a college student of the 60s, 70s or 80s, you probably know lines from Vonnegut novels by heart. Producer, director and writer Robert Weide has come out with a new documentary on Kurt Vonnegut, which includes Mr. Weide’s personal relationship to Vonnegut, called Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time. I was happy to interview Robert Weide for Arts Express.
Click the triangle or mp3 link above to hear my interview with Robert Weide, as broadcast today on Arts Express on WBAI FM NYC, and Pacifica stations across the country.
“This is about digression. This started six years ago as a written piece and somehow I’m circling back to it now. We’re coming up on Halloween, which is a day where we hide ourselves, change our identities, have secret identities; in other words, we refuse to be what others see us as, we try to make things a little bit harder for those who want to capture us in a word, a phrase, a box, a category, an image. Like Harry Houdini, I want to be an escape artist from the expectations of others…”
Click the triangle or mp3 link above to hear the story, as broadcast today on Arts Express on WBAI FM NYC, and Pacifica stations across the country.
The longtime head of the Portuguese Communist Party, Álvaro Cunhal, spent many years of his life in Portuguese fascist prisons. Later in exile, from the 1950s onward, he wrote novels, novellas and short stories about Portuguese life under the fascists who ruled from 1927 to the early 1970s. In particular, he wrote of the leading role of the Portuguese Communist Party in the anti-fascist struggle for almost 50 years. To create a literary identity apart from his political renown, he employed the pen name Manuel Tiago.
Author and translator Eric Gordon set himself the task of translating Cunhal’s work into English, and so far, the books Five Days, Five Nights and The Six-Pointed Star have appeared from International Publishers. The 3rd Floor has just been issued, with five more books on their way.
The title story is a prison break tale. In the excerpt I’ll be reading, the Communist prisoners have worked out a messaging system with the Party by writing on little bits of cigarette papers and smuggling them in and out under the buttons of shirts in the dirty prison laundry. A trio of prisoners who are secretly working on a prison break have just received back a message from the Party.
Click the triangle or mp3 link above to hear the story, as broadcast today on Arts Express on WBAI FM NYC, and Pacifica stations across the country.
Magician Ben Seidman with a great effect and one of the most consistently entertaining and funny acts on Fool Us. It doesn’t seem to fool Penn & Teller, but I had no idea what Penn’s clues were there. Seidman claims on his YouTube channel that there were no camera effects involved, and that it could be reproduced live, in which case I’m totally stumped.
Who doesn’t love a good mystery? John Gaspard is the author of not just one mystery series but at least two, and I have been devouring all of them in a bet-you-can’t-eat-just-one style. One series involves the world of stage magicians, and the other, the world of small town amateur theatre companies. And as if that weren’t enough, John is also the author of a well-regarded series of books about Fast Cheap low budget filmmaking.
Click the triangle or mp3 link above to hear my interview with John, as broadcast this week on Arts Express Pacifica stations across the nation, and later in the week on WBAI FM NY.
Last week in Part 1, we spoke with Olivia Laing about her fascinating new book Everybody. It’s a book about the work of psychologist Wilhelm Reich and the expanding influence his ideas had, especially that of “character armor,” that is, the idea that our emotional memories are physically retained within the musculature of our bodies.
We ended by my asking Olivia Laing whether Reich had gone over the deep end in his later years. This week we talk about the wide range of artists and thinkers that Reich influenced, including Andrea Dworkin, Nina Simone, Lorraine Hansberry, and James Baldwin.
Click on the triangle or mp3 link above to hear my conversation with Olivia Laing as broadcast yesterday on WBAI and Pacifica affiliates across the nation.
When I hear from Greg Chapman that he’s working on a new book, my ears perk up like a rabbit hearing about a new cabbage patch. His first two books, Details of Deception and The Devil’s Staircase were advanced explorations of gambling style card material with methods that leave the audience in the dust. When I heard what Greg was up to this time, I was filled with joy in a completely different way. What he had in mind was a small book, 52 pages to be exact—a monograph, for the more precise among us—on the faro shuffle. And I’m happy to say that book has now come to fruition, Faro Fundamentals. (Full disclosure: I gladly did some proofreading on this as well as the earlier books.)
It was a brilliant idea. First, because Greg was the man to do it, and second, because it was such an obvious gap in the literature that it was startling that no one had thought about it before. Those starting the journey of learning the faro shuffle have always had to be like mosaic quilters taking patches from here and patches from there, piecing together the knowledge. Some of the sources were easily available and some of the sources were not. You didn’t know where it was going to turn up. The knowledge consisted of three categories: a) the mechanical information necessary to actually accomplish the shuffle, b) the properties of the shuffle that make it useful, and c) how to put those properties to work in magic effects. Although there are some wonderful chapters about the faro in Marlo, Elmsley, and Expert Card Technique, to my knowledge there was no one exclusive resource that covered all three aspects. Greg’s book can help in all three areas.
Let’s start off with just learning how to do the damn thing. I have to admit I am skeptical of those who claim to have learned the shuffle from the few sentences in a certain famous book about close-up card magic. If you did, my hat’s off to you, and you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din. Let’s face it, for most, there will be cursing and weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth in the beginning without proper instruction. Fortunately, Greg’s book addresses several issues that beginners to the shuffle come up against. If listened to, Greg’s helpful advice can significantly cut down on the wrong approaches that only serve to frustrate. Greg has the knowledge and the chops to describe and to illustrate excellently what an approach to the faro could be. He isn’t dogmatic about how to approach it—he openly admits that if you’ve already got an approach that works for you, fine, then go with it; he isn’t trying to proselytize for one particular method. What he does do, though, is to lay out a path to achieve the faro. I especially enjoyed the line drawings made from photos to emphasize the key placements of the fingers of each hand. I also learned some very surprising properties of straddle faros.
As Jeremy Griffin says spot on in his foreword to the book, when it comes to the faro shuffle, people tend to overestimate its difficulty or underestimate its usefulness. In ancient Greece, at a certain point, students of Euclidean geometry advanced to a theorem known as the “Bridge of Asses.” The student had learned all the proofs of previous theorems, but now it was time to join the big boys: the crossing of that bridge signaled something special. It meant that if you could now prove that theorem you had enough tools under your belt to tackle the larger problems. So it is with the faro. I can’t say that I use the faro everyday, but the learning of the faro is what convinced me that I could actually progress further with card sleights. Once you have the faro under your belt, nothing seems too difficult to accomplish. I mean it’s absurd on the face of it: to perfectly split the cards in half and then to perfectly interlace them while no one suspects that that is what you are doing? And moreover, even if they do understand what you are doing, they don’t understand the implications of such an action? That’s powerful.
And that’s something that Greg has expressed to me as a prime motivation for writing the book: “If only I could get folks to climb this mountain with me, because from up here you can see what’s on the other side. Sometimes you can’t know what’s possible until you actually experience something.” Jeremy Griffin in the introduction puts it perfectly: there is the balance of learning something along with all its difficulty, but also balancing the knowledge of its potential on the other side.
And so Greg’s teaching of the faro has a not-so-hidden agenda: he wants to teach you the fundamentals because he wants to grab you and take you up the mountain so that you can see what he sees. And what’s up there? Well, of course, some wonderful effects like Paul Gertner’s Unshuffled (which he doesn’t teach here) and the two bonus routines Greg does teach from his two previous books. But also more than tricks; once you know the faro shuffle you have a very effective way of controlling cards to any position while doing a very fair shuffle, and when combined with a memdeck, it’s an especially powerful tool.
There are those who are skeptical of the audience acceptance of the faro shuffle, and feel like that’s why they wouldn’t want to spend time to learn it. But Greg definitely holds another view. He gives persuasive arguments and advice on how to condition the spectator to accept the shuffle’s fairness and naturalness. Yes, another magician will often recognize an in-the-hands faro—but even then, Greg suggests ways that can throw the wise guys off course. Of course, if one can master the table faro, then that objection disappears completely; and while not claiming to be the last word on the table faro, and acknowledging its difficulty, Greg also gives some tips for achieving it. I don’t pretend that I am willing to put in the time, or that reading Greg’s book will make me a master of the table faro, no book can do that, but I know that if ever one day I wanted to start that journey, this would be the first place I would look to begin my instruction.
The two effects that Greg includes from his previous two books are “Searchers Undone” which is an almost self–working (aside from the faro) version of Larry Jennings “Searchers” effect, where two black kings trap two known cards; and a real magician fooler, “One Card Missing”: a card is chosen, the deck shuffled, cut by the spec, and then shuffled, cut again by the spec, spread for an instant and the performer names the card. (Think about those spectator cuts, even if you’re familiar with the faro!) Greg also streamlines a Marlo location: a card is taken by a spec from the center of the deck, replaced, shuffled, one cut, and the card is on top. The strong parts here are that no breaks are held after the card is replaced, and the shuffle happens immediately afterwards. There’s nothing to see.
As I mentioned before, Greg’s hope is to open up a can of worms. He tantalizing gives you a glimpse of what in practice the ability to faro nonchalantly can mean for stack work. The positioning of cards as they are shuffled means that one can work not with just one kind of stack but different stacks throughout a set for different purposes. Imagine various effects depending on the deck being stacked first by color, then by suit, then by four of a kind. The faro becomes a powerful tool to cycle from one stack to another with relatively little effort.
Is there everything here about the faro? No; in this 52-page book there’s not going to be everything, nor is it meant to be encyclopedic, though there is a short bibliography of major works concerning the faro. Greg’s last two books were eagerly snatched up by aficionados, but they were clearly for a limited audience. But I predict that Faro Fundamentals will be one of those relatively rare perennial sellers in the magic literature. Because there can be no question now: if someone asks, “Where should I go to learn about the faro shuffle?” Greg’s book is it.
If you’ve been putting off learning the faro, or you’ve tried but just couldn’t get it, or if you can faro, but want to understand more about what the faro can achieve, I urge you to pick up a copy of Faro Fundamentals. It fills a huge gap in the magical literature and you will be glad to have this as your faro companion.
I thought it would be fun to read an excerpt from my novel, The New World. It’s a tale set in New York City that follows the struggles and triumphs of four generations of strivers, lovers, and grabbers- of-life.
This excerpt focuses on 20 year-old David Walker who has just been discharged from the army in Iraq for trying to shoot up his sergeant. Fortunately for David, he was able to cash in some chips to get out from the brig and escape with only a dishonorable discharge. Now returned home to live with his mother, he wonders how he’ll survive, with his major skill being cheating at cards. And despite many attempts to track down the old love of his life, Jennifer, he cannot find her.
Click on the triangle or link above to hear the excerpt as broadcast today on the Arts Express radio program on WBAI FM NYC and Pacifica affiliates across the country.
Our friend of the blog, Dennis Mayne, wrote me and said that since I like tap dancers so much I just had to read Rusty Frank’s book, TAP!: The Greatest Tap Dance Stars & Their Stories, where she interviewed all the tap dancing legends! Well, I got the book, and for the last month every morning with my coffee I have been delightedly reading these wonderful primary source interviews with Bunny Briggs, Jimmy Slyde, Hermes Pan, Shirley Temple, Ann Miller and so many more. Fortunately I was able to contact Rusty and we had a delightful interview about her book and she even gave me a little on-air tap dancing lesson!
Click on the triangle or mp3 link above to hear my interview with Rusty Frank as broadcast today on the Arts Express radio program on WBAI FM NYC and Pacifica affiliates across the nation.
I like to do a Favorites of the Year post on our blog’s birthday, so here are some of the interviews or written pieces which we enjoyed most over the past year that you may have missed, or may like to view again:
David Graeber died last month and it was a real loss. The radical anthropologist was probably best known as the author of Debt: The First 5000 Years, but my favorite book of his is the quirky Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. Here’s my commentary on this important book as broadcast today on the Arts Express program on WBAI FM NYC and Pacifica affiliates across the country.
Click on the triangle or the image above to listen.
In 1980, Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan created the wildly successful television series and book, Cosmos. Now, forty years later, Ann Druyan has come out with a third series of Cosmos and a companion book called Cosmos: Possible Worlds. I was happy to interview Ann Druyan about the new series.
To hear the interview as broadcast today on the Arts Express radio program on WBAI FM and Pacifica affiliates across the nation, click on the image or the triangle above.
In this installment, we’ll be getting into more specialized and advanced books, yet I think the information in each of them is valuable no matter what area of magic most intrigues you.
TheDai Vernon Book of Magic by Lewis Ganson: Some of the classic close-up routines of magic, including The Chinese Coins, that should be in every magician’s repertoire.
Restaurant and Bar Magicby Jonathan Kamm: Kamm is a bar magician, and in this slim book of effects he explains some wonderful mainstays of the bar magician. If you’re not a drinker, don’t let the appellation of bar magic worry you. Bar magic is close-up magic that requires little in the way of props, but it has a very clear plot, is visual, often modular, and has high impact. There’s a great repeat card under deck routine here as well as seven other routines which, as they say, are workers.
Marked for Life by Kirk Charles: This is a slim paperback on how to create your own deck of marked cards and tricks to do with same. There’s a hilarious trick done with a rubber stamp imprint of a cat’s paw that I used to have a lot of fun with. But the real winner here is the system for marking cards that Bob Farmer came up with that requires only a red Sharpie on a red Bicycle deck which produces marks that can be seen from a good distance.
Expert Card Technique by Jean Hugard and Frederick Braue: This one may sit on the shelf until you’re ready for it, but once you are, you will be amazed at the gems of advanced card magic sleights and effects it contains: passes, glimpses, transpositions. Though written before Royal Road to Magic and Card College, this is the post-graduate course.
Taschen Magic Posters: I’ve written about this book before, and I continue to feel that it’s one of my favorite magic books of all time. This multi-lingual large-size edition pictured above is out of print and hard to find now, but there’s a smaller sized abridged version available at very reasonable cost, which is still quite wonderful. It’s beautifully put together with glorious reproductions of hundreds of years of magic posters interspersed with essays from the likes of Jim Steinmeyer. It’s big, heavy, and an absolute pleasure to pull out on a rainy day.
An Actor Prepares by Konstantin Stanislavski: while this volume was meant for theater actors performing in a scripted play, there is much here to be learned here about communicating with an audience. The Spanish magician Juan Tamariz summarized some of this information in The Five Ways of Magic, but An Actor Prepares goes more deeply into some important aspects of performing and getting ready to perform. Pay special attention to the sections on Relaxation, Concentration, Units and Objectives, Faith and a Sense of Truth, The Super-Objective, and Communion.
Act Two by Barrie Richardson: There’s more great mental magic in this sequel to Theater of the Mind. If you’ve always wanted to learn a memdeck, but don’t think you’re quite up to it now, there’s an easy to memorize half memdeck here that’s very useful. In particular, it’s used in a easy-to-do stage ACAAN that plays big. There are many other mental effects and techniques here that are worth exploring as well.
Card College, Volumes 2, 3, and 4: by Roberto Giobbi: Card College is a massive achievement but I think Royal Road substitutes well for Volume 1 and has better tricks, and Volume 5 is largely a book of pleasant but unessential card tricks. For me, the real stars of the CC series are Volumes 2, 3 and 4, which form an excellent detailed reference for learning and executing the most common card sleights one might come across in other sources.
Magic is My Weed and How to Make Love the Steve Spill Way both by Steve Spill. I put these two books together because frankly it is hard to decide between them. Simply, read them both. They are not cheap, but if you are planning to set foot onstage before a large audience in a regular professional capacity, these books would be a very wise investment. I did detailed reviews of the two books here (Weed) and here (Love). If you want to be a performer and not just a guy or gal doing tricks, these books are a goldmine of information. Wonderful effects, jokes, scripts, but even more wonderful advice about how to construct an act and entertain an audience.
It’s time once again for this blog’s annual magic contest!
So here is the challenge this year:
What are the two (three is optional) most memorable magical effects you’ve ever seen? Tell us the circumstances, and why you were so impressed by those effects. That’s it. In your entry, see if you can put the reader in your place, and see if you can transmit some of that feeling that you experienced.
First prize is first choice from the terrific grab bag of magic books I’ve put together; second prize is second choice from the grab bag; and third prize, in a parallel, numerically pleasing manner, is third choice from the grab bag. The items in the grab bag are all commercial books, at least one of which, I guarantee, you will be very happy to have.
All are welcome to participate. And even if you were a past winner before, feel free to participate again as long as you were not a 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place winner last year.
And in the spirit of everyone being a winner, I’ll ask all entrants to allow me to make up a pdf file which includes their entry. This pdf will NOT BE SOLD, but will be offered only as a free download to all those who entered.
Send your entries please to firstname.lastname@example.org
Make sure to put the word CONTEST in the subject line
Deadline Monday, November 2, 11:59 PM. In case of a tie, earlier entries get preference.
In her fascinating new book, The Young Lords, Professor Johanna Fernández makes a compelling case that the Young Lords were one of the most important revolutionary groups of the late 60s and early 70s. They won lasting victories by coupling street smarts, sophisticated organizing techniques, and intense political analyses. There’s much to be learned from their story, both successes and failures, which is cogently and lovingly told by the author.
Click on the triangle or image above to hear my interview with Johanna Fernández, as broadcast today on the Arts Express radio program, heard on WBAI NYC and Pacifica stations across the nation.
It’s August and that’s the month poet Charles Bukowski was born in 1920. With over 5000 poems and six novels and hundreds of short stories to his name, he’s become a kind of cult figure over the last decades. While his writings have stamped him with the indelible persona of an alcoholic anti-social misanthropic and misogynistic git, yet there’s also a gentler humanness in Bukowski.
He died at the age of 74. On his gravestone the epitaph reads, “Don’t Try.”
Come with us now as we go out to our favorite virtual watering hole, knock down a couple of drinks, and listen to a performance of some of Bukowski’s poems as broadcast today on Arts Express radio on Pacifica stations across the nation.
Click on the grey triangle or mp3 link above to listen.
I’ll assume you’ve learned enough about basic sleights and presentation so that now I’ll recommend books that explain more advanced techniques or books that offer a broader scope of action. I also include more books that give a more intimate look into aspects of the history of magic.
Bound to Please by Simon Aronson is a collection of three smaller books by the author. The first is a collection of early card effects of Aronson’s, the second is a description of his memorized deck, and the third is devoted to a single card effect called “ShuffleBored.” Aronson, by training a lawyer, was one of the best writers of magic around. His writing is thorough, detailed, engaging, and some of the cleverest card magic you’ll ever encounter. You will fool yourself.
Let’s take the three sections from back to front (and it’s probably the best way to read the book!) : ShuffleBored is not only the best “self-working” card trick in the universe (and I’ll back that up with money if need be!) it’s stronger than 90% of most other card tricks as well. (Hot tip: do John Bannon’s version from Dear Mr. Fantasy. His ideas with the eye covering and shuffling procedure are great improvements.)
The second section is an extensive tutorial on Aronson’s memorized deck: how to learn one, and the specific features built into the Aronson stack. You’re not going to acquire a memdeck overnight, but it’s not as hard as many think. If you’re serious about this stuff, you might as well start now, and you’ll get it down long before you get your pass or strike double to where you like it. You’ll have an incredible tool in your kit.
The third section is a collection of card magic, some of which uses the memdeck. My favorite trick here is “Some People Say,” which has a very simple plot, but the conditions are so stringent that it seems a complete impossibility. Very good for driving your analytical friends crazy.
BTW, if you’re skeptical about learning a memdeck or just want to know more, Aronson wrote a booklet for those contemplating learning a memdeck and graciously offered it for free here.
Simply Simon, by Simon Aronson. More card magic from a great thinker of card magic. There are some wonderful routines, including my favorite memdeck routine, “Past, Present, Future.” But it’s not just a book of memdeck effects—even if you never want to remember another card in your life, there’s great material here, somewhat challenging to learn, but not overly difficult.
Stars of Magic: This thin volume consists of the original Stars of Magic pamphlets that were originally printed separately but are now offered as a bound collection. And a stellar collection it is. There are effects by John Scarne, Dr. Daley, Francis Carlyle, Dai Vernon, Slydini, and more. This is professional level magic and a career could be assembled from learning all these effects. They’re not necessarily easy, and they do contain some advanced sleight of hand, but these are classic routines that have stood the test of time and probably every professional magician working today has one of these effects in his or her repertoire. Even if you don’t master all of these routines, you should be aware of them.
Gerald Deutsch’s Perverse Magic: I wrote at length on this book here and here. One of the big hurdles for performing for people you’ve known for years is that they find it hard to swallow that you are suddenly endowed with superhuman powers. How do you perform for friends and family without coming off as a narcissistic jerk? Well, Jerry Deutsch has an approach which really resonates with me. In this style of presentation, the performer is as surprised by what happens as the spectator is. In fact, even when the performer tries to do a trick, the trick goes wrong (that’s the Perverse part)—but with a stronger effect than what was first expected, much to everyone’s surprise.
Dai Vernon: A Biography by David Ben. The most influential magician of the twentieth century, Dai Vernon, was essentially an obsessed amateur for whom the art of magic was more important than business, family, or just about anything else. “The Man Who Fooled Houdini” created some of the greatest close-up effects and techniques in magic and was also a consummate teacher. Because Vernon did little documentation of his own work (although he was an endless storyteller), this first volume of a projected two volume set about his life is a valuable detailed look at the trajectory of Vernon’s domestic and magic lives.
Tricks Every Magician Should Know by Al Schneider. This is a fun book filled with, well, stuff. The kind of throwaway novelties that some magicians seem to know, but aren’t necessarily written down anywhere: How To Shoot Rubberbands, Making a Handkerchief Rabbit, How To Tie A Knot Without Letting Go Of The Ends, How To Push A Cigarette Up Your Nose—you get it, the essential things.
ThePhoenix, edited By Bruce Elliott. I’m a magic magazine junkie, and it was a toss-up whether to list Hugard’s Magic Monthly or The Phoenix. I went with the latter for now, because The Phoenix has more of a close-up focus than stage, and it’s much more available.
The Phoenix was the offspring of Ted Annemann’s The Jinx, and like The Jinx it eschewed sleight-of-hand effects for those using subtle and clever principles. There were some wonderful contributors, including Vernon, Marlo, and Paul Curry (“Out of This World”) who had a regular column. Bruce Elliott was a writer by trade who kept the magazine lively with his strong opinions and commentary on the magic scene of the 40s and 50s. Yes, you can find pdf files of this, but the bound collection is so much more fun to read.
Classic Secrets of Magic by Bruce Elliott. I first read this book as a teen-ager when it was issued in paperback. It covers a dozen or so classic close-up effects of magic. This is not meant as an expose book, but a serious book of teaching magic. The book, much of it drawn from articles in The Phoenix, covers effects like the Cups and Balls, The Four Aces, The Miser’s Dream, The Ambitious Cards and others.
The methods given for these tricks are not always the most sophisticated, but they are meant for advanced beginners and they will get the job done. A warning—this book is not for children. There’s a version of the Swallowing Razor Blade Trick that’s not at all suitable for young people, and there’s another trick involving corncob pipes that has a good chance of seriously harming the performer (both ammonia and hydrochloric acid are involved here. Ah, the 50s!). But the rest of the book is very good, and the Dr. Sachs dice routine, which is not easy to find elsewhere, is an excellent impromptu item to know.
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 there’s 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 CoinMagicby 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.