I'm a sucker for magic. I was age 11 when I discovered where the books of magic were stocked in the tiny branch library near my house; I was a few years later when me and a few friends met a junior member of the Magic Castle's Junior Society who teased us with tricks and promised he could get in to see a free show (he couldn't); And I still can't resist picking up a book of magic and thumbing through to see if there's some new slight-of-hand I haven't seen explained before.
There are a lot of classic books in the field of magic, full of tricks broken down by type (coin, rope, card, etc), but for most of these books the illusion is described in great detail but given only one or two (if any) key illustrations. More modern books that are well-illustrated, many with photos in full color, tend to have simple illusions and are aimed at younger magicians. Finding the balance of an impressive trick with enough images to make it easy to follow, that's always been a winning combination for me, and Hey Presto! Amazing Magic Tricks to Confound and Astound is a solid starter book for the curious.
One trick that I've never quite seen explained in a way that made sense to me before was one where a volunteer from the audience submits a dollar bill, is asked to sign their name on it, the bill is put in an envelope and set on fire... and then the magician forgets the rest of the trick and can't bring the dollar back. It's a great gag because in that moment you buy into the very real element that sometimes illusions don't work the way they're supposed to. The follow-up to this trick, and it's included in Hey Presto!, is the magician moving on to another trick – a card trick in this case – and when a volunteer cuts the deck voila! there's the dollar bill! Once you know how it's done, with a little practice it becomes a relatively easy and incredibly impressive illusion. And this is just one of over 40 included in the book.
So back in the day a family friend who knew I liked magic got me a couple books for my birthday. They were sort of funky – like foreign editions from some publisher I'd never heard of – and I'd never bothered to memorize the author or the titles because it was what was inside that mattered. Naturally I lost those books by my late teens and have spent forever with an eye out for them. Finding the lost books of my childhood is, I now realize, a lifetime task.
But there it was, for a quarter, at the library! Secrets of Magic, oh, how simple the title! By Walter Gibson! Of course!
The beauty of Secrets of Magic isn't just its collection of illusions, it's in the subtitle: Amazing and Mysterious Feats of the Past and Present – Performed and Revealed! A man buried alive appears among the crowd before the last of the dirt is place on the coffin! A magician walks into a giant steal oven with two steaks, emerges ten minutes later with the steaks cooked but unsinged and unharmed! Houdini walks an elephant into a railroad car, walks out, and the elephant is gone! All explained! These are the big illusions, including some older tricks that so easily would have scared the bejeebers out of less sophisticated folks but would be ho-hum today: a wizard making an omlette appear in a hot pan seems both silly and dangerous (e.coli anyone?) but would have passed as witchcraft 400 years ago. Similarly, sawing a person in half seems tame in this collection, especially alongside the preparation it takes to jump into a cauldron of boiling water or climbing barefoot up a ladder of blades. No trick to either of these, you simply (!) condition your body to deal with it! David Blane is just the latest in a long line of illusionist who tap the physical limitations of their bodies to create the amazing and mysterious.
My favorite recent memory connected with this book had to do with stumbling onto a YouTube video where a BBC reporter "exposed" a fakir who managed to remain suspended in air above a bench while barely holding onto a cane. How this qualified as "investigative reporting" when I had known about this from Secrets of Magic for over 40 years is the bigger mystery.
Amazing Magic Tricks to Confound and Astound
by Chris Stone
Collins & Brown 2013
Secrets of Magic
Amazing and Mysterious Feats of the Past and Present – Performed and Revealed!
by Walter Gibson
Grosset & Dunlap 1967