When I saw the UPS man stooped over as he was delivering the package to my mailbox, I knew that it had finally arrived. I’m talking about Taschen’s Magic 1400s-1950s, an amazing book of posters and essays that is hands down the most magnificent book of any kind that I own.
It seems impossible to believe, but what I ordered from Amazon is actually the abridged edition. Abridged in this case means 540 pages instead of 650 pages, 2 inches shorter in length, and 1 1/2 inches narrower; but the book is still massive, two inches thick, measuring 16″ x 11″, weighing twelve pounds.
You can open this tome at any point and you will be greeted by the most wonderful historical magic posters and photos in beautiful color. And every once in a while you will also be greeted by the most lovely of two-page spreads. The illustrations on the posters are truly delicious, and many of them have not been in print in book form before. In the centuries before social media, the variety arts were advertised through posters that promised the most extraordinary of delights, and the wonders of Kellar, Thurston, Houdini, and countless others were communicated in large part through this medium.
But, you say, you are one of those people that buys Playboy for the articles and doesn’t care about the pictures. In that case, you are still in luck. The book is also filled with fascinating essays by the great Jim Steinmeyer, Ricky Jay, and Mike Caveney, all Godfathers of magical knowledge, both historical and practical. The essays (and picture captions) are all in three languages: English, French, and German. But the nice thing about this is that though the text is repeated, there are different pictorial elements for each, so the 540 pages is really a full 540 pages of content, not just repetition. It seems incredible to me, that when you consider that the original edition cost $250, that Amazon can currently sell this for under $50. Oh, and did I mention that for that price, the book is also provided with a handsome slip cover as well?
As my wife says, this is the kind of book that makes you want to run out and buy a coffee table, it’s that good. I highly, highly recommend this book to anyone who has the slightest interest in the magical or the illustrative arts. I guarantee you will spend many delightful times with this book.
The other book that I’ve been reading this week is also a magic history book, but at the other end of the spectrum. Where the Taschen book covers 500 years of history and spans multiple countries and genres of magic, Dick Oslund’s self-published Road Scholar is quite the opposite. It is highly specific, and covers a very narrow, but deep, slice of American magical history. To wit, the good-natured Oslund spent forty-plus years on the road as a performer touring the “knowledge boxes,” that is, the school Lyceum circuit. Oslund made a career of performing his 45-minute show in up to four different schools a day as he traveled an average 500 miles a week, through the tiniest towns of Michigan, South Dakota, Kansas and parts West. If the definition of success is to find a niche and to fill it, then Oslund was successful in spades. He tells literally hundreds of stories of his visits to schools around the country, and by the end, you are exhausted, but feel that he must have encountered every possible situation that could ever be encountered by a school performer.
The production values here are, as I said before, on the opposite spectrum of the Taschen book, but in its own way, it is no less comprehensive. There’s not a whole lot in the way of editing, and the photos are all in glorious black and white, but in the chatty conversation here, there’s a lot of wisdom born of hard experience. The casual magician will be most interested in the latter half of the book, what Oslund calls “The Book Within a Book.” In this section, which follows the anecdotal section (and 82-year-old Oslund must have kept the most amazing notes or have the most amazing memory!), Oslund talks about his trick set list and magic philosophy, while also including his road-tested scripts and precious bits of business. This section begins with Oslund’s nine sacred rules for choosing effects for a school audience, and it’s advice that can be followed by all who want to make sure that their platform show can be performed under any condition.
There will probably be some who feel that Oslund could have just published the latter half of the book, and I can’t say that I totally disagree; the opening material while interesting does start to get repetitious. There’s also lots of biographical information about all the other school performers he met along the way; while this is important to document for historical reasons, for the casual reader it probably holds less interest.
In a way there’s a method to Oslund’s madness. In his insistence to document just about every school in which he ever performed, and every performer that he ever met, he creates the context for the second part of his book. Because in a way, you can’t really understand the full value of the trick part of the book without understanding that, subliminally, Oslund has been telling you all along the real secret: all those folks he met along the way, all those home-cooked meals given to him by comrades, some newly met, all those “jackpots” and stories swapped convivially, were the real secret of his success. Without ever explicitly saying so, Oslund makes you understand that he was actually in the people business, and that he was a success in his field because he loved people and had a genius for friendship. He knew what people wanted, and could give it to them. I can’t say that this is a book for everyone, but Oslund paints a little seen portrait of the vast network and isolation of the rural school systems across America, hungry for outside input. I can truly say I learned a lot about both American magic history and American education from this Road Scholar.