Mysterium: On Tangential Subjects
With this post, so begins a new series of articles presented by Jason England every week, as a sort of digital “column” here on theory11. For those curious as to what each post will contain – the answer is anything and everything.
Our goal is to present a diverse array of topics, from sleight of hand to card cheating, interviews, inspiration, and everywhere in between. Check back every Wednesday for the latest post, and feel free to comment and ask questions in the forums. Our hope is for this series to be less of a monologue, and more of a dialogue. So on that note – let’s get started!
Mysterium: On Tangential Subjects – By Jason England
I’m frequently asked for a list of the best magic books to improve one’s technique, effect construction, presentation, routining or showmanship. The answers for technique depend largely on the specific techniques in question, but classics like Expert Card Technique and the Card College series frequently make the lists. For good effect construction advice I always point people to Darwin Ortiz’s Designing Miracles, and to his Strong Magic for advice on showmanship and presentational ideas.
What are the best non-magic books that you feel have helped you in some way to become a better performer?
But recently I was asked a very interesting question: What are the best non-magic books that you feel have helped you in some way to become a better performer? I thought about the question and managed to assemble an eclectic list of books that I admire for one reason or another. Although in some cases, the specifics of just how these books changed me as a performer for the better are not entirely clear; my instincts tell me that they have. Your mileage may vary.
The list is varied and somewhat long, but I think there’s some great information here. I have presented the books in the order that they’re sitting in a pile on my desk at the moment. Don’t read anything into the order of the books beyond that.
A Challenge For the Actor – Uta Hagen
If you adhere to Robert-Houdin’s oft-quoted observation that a conjuror or prestidigitator “is an actor playing the part of a magician,” then it would behoove you to study some acting and theatrical techniques. Whether or not one needs to be an Actor with a capital “A” to be a good magician is a point best left for others to argue, but few would disagree that Uta Hagen’s A Challenge For the Actor is a great book on the craft. See also her first book: Respect for Acting. It too is considered a classic in the field.
Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! – Richard Feynman
Apart from just being a great read, this book is a terrific reminder of what it means to be passionate about a subject. Or in the case of Feynman, to be passionate about a great many subjects. Can I point to a specific part of this book that made me a better performer/magician? No, but I consider myself to be a better-educated person for having read it – and I have to think that that has a way of spilling over into my performances in small but meaningful ways. Although I didn’t like quite it as much, the sequel to Surely is called, What Do You Care What Other People Think? and is also worth reading.
What Einstein Didn’t Know – Robert L. Wolke
I’m a big fan of lay science books that explain everyday phenomena in easy-to-understand language. The Wolke series (including What Einstein Told His Barber and What Einstein Told His Cook) are really great. Although I don’t have any specific presentations that come out of these books, I’m convinced that there are some great ideas for magicians lurking within these pages. Some other great books in this same vein by other authors are: 101 Things You Don’t Know About Science and No One Else Does Either by James Trefil, How Can You Tell If a Spider Is Dead? by Don Glass, Nature’s Curiosity Shop and Why Nothing Can Travel Faster than Light by Zimmerman/Zimmerman, and Radar, Hula Hoops, and Playful Pigs by Dr. Joe Schwarcz. In fact, all of the Schwarcz books on everyday chemistry and science are worth reading. Amazon.com will turn up a half-dozen or so and they’re all excellent.
The Power of Logical Thinking – Marilyn vos Savant
I’ve been a fan of Marilyn vos Savant’s “Ask Marilyn” column in Parade magazine for years. Many of her answers have been collected into a series of books. Ask Marilyn and More Marilyn are the first two in the series and they’re all quite good, but I’ve always been partial to The Power of Logical Thinking. She had me at the dedication.
Gambling Scams – Darwin Ortiz
Of all the books on this list, this one is perhaps the most obvious one to turn to for presentational ideas. The notion of the magician as an expert at gambling/cheating (“I’d hate to play cards with you!”) is both natural and ubiquitous in the eyes of the lay public. Gambling Scams will help you sort out the real information from the magician-patter bullshit. Other books in this genre are Gamblers Don’t Gamble by MacDougall, Scarne’s Complete Guide to Casino Gambling by John Scarne, Dealing With Cheats by A. D. Livingston and Marked Cards and Loaded Dice by Frank Garcia. However, in my opinion Ortiz’s book is the best of them all by far and should be the first one you read.
Freakonomics – Steven Levittt & Stephen Dubner
In recent years, some great books have been released that attempt to explain confusing and often counter-intuitive phenomena using some very basic economic thinking and theories. Although you don’t often come away with any life-altering information, these books are quite popular (many have been best-sellers) and fun to read. I’m convinced there’s presentational fodder in them. While Freakonomics and the follow-up, Super-Freakonomics are some of the best-known titles in the genre, other really good ones that you’ll enjoy are Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, and The Economic Naturalist by Robert Frank. Although they don’t fall neatly into the lay-economics category, I find that books like Sway by Brafman/Brafman, The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki, and all of Malcolm Gladwell’s books (The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, etc) are good candidates for presentation-mining as well as just good reads.
The Art of Learning – Josh Waitzkin
Josh Waitzkin is the subject of the book and movie Searching For Bobby Fischer. He was a chess prodigy and went on to achieve the rating of International Master (the second-highest rating below Grandmaster). As an adult, Waitzkin retired from competitive chess and became a world-champion martial artist. His Art of Learning is the story of Waitzkin’s ascent to the top (or near the top) of two very different worlds. I found myself making many comparisons to magic while reading it.
Innumeracy – John Allen Paulos
John Allen Paulos’s bestseller had a tremendous impact on me as a young man and ignited a passion for lay mathematics and probability books that I still have to this day. His follow-up books Beyond Innumeracy, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, Once Upon a Number, etc are good, but the first one is the best.
Story – Robert McKee
Robert McKee is a somewhat controversial person in the film and screenwriting world. Nevertheless, his Story is an excellent introduction to dealing with character, structure and other story elements that many magicians will find useful. I can’t guarantee that you’ll write the next great screenplay after reading this book or attending one of his seminars (McKee himself hasn’t had a screenplay turned into a major movie), but for magicians I think reading this book is time well-spent.
Mastery – Joan Ames
I ran across this book when it was first released and have recommended it to people ever since. Ames takes 30 remarkable people and interviews them about their accomplishments in their field. Their answers are thought provoking. I’ve always wanted to write a similar book but concentrating only on the world of magic.
Casino Game Protection – Steve Forte
Earlier I listed Darwin Ortiz’s Gambling Scams and several other books on cheating at dice and cards that I recommend. Forte’s Casino Game Protection wasn’t on that list but has been placed here separately. What’s going on you ask? It’s simple. The previously mentioned books were primarily aimed at the public, not casino personnel. Forte’s book is different. It was designed and sold as essentially a textbook on the subject of protecting casino table games. As such, it’s the best book on the subject ever written. It’s also quite expensive, frequently selling for much more than its $200.00 publication price. But if you want the real information on this fascinating subject, there’s nothing else like it in the world.
Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women – Ricky Jay
Ricky Jay is one of a handful of authors whose books and other projects I’ll buy sight-unseen. I have all of his major publications with the exception of The Magic Magic Book, which routinely sells for several thousand dollars. Learned Pigs, like his follow-up books Jay’s Journal of Anomalies, Dice: Deception, Fate and Rotten Luck, Extraordinary Exhibitions, and Celebrations of Curious Characters shows not only the depth of Ricky’s research, but also the depth of his passion for collecting and writing about con-games, cheaters and grifters, unusual performers and other “curious characters” from history. I wish I understood magic the way Ricky Jay understands the subjects he’s passionate about – magic included.
Martin Gardner (too many titles to list)
Martin Gardner is a special case on this list. He’s written so many great books, primarily in the fields of lay mathematics, lay science and skeptical issues, that it would be impossible to choose just one title to represent him. Instead, start with his collections of columns from Scientific American magazine and then branch out into whatever other titles of his that catch your eye. The columns books are: Hexaflexagons and Other Mathematical Diversions, The Second Scientific American Book of Mathematical Puzzles and Diversion, The Unexpected Hanging, Mathematical Circus, Mathematical Carnival, The Last Recreations, Fractal Music – Hypercards and More, Wheels – Life and Other Mathematical Amusements, Time Travel and Other Mathematical Bewilderments, and Knotted Doughnuts and Other Mathematical Entertainments.
This list represents about 10% (possibly less) of Gardner’s total output. I don’t believe a complete Gardner bibliography exists anywhere, although there are some lists that have all of his major publications cataloged. Suffice to say he wrote over 100 books and all of them are worth a look.
How to Reassess Your Chess – Jeremy Silman
You might think it odd that a chess book aimed at medium-strength amateurs would make a list on books that I feel have improved my magic. I agree. In fact, this is one of the books that I had in mind earlier when I wrote that it’s not always clear just how some of these titles have improved me as a performer. With How to Reassess Your Chess, all I can say is that I distinctly remember being blown away by how Silman managed to write a chess book like no other. I began to wonder if it was possible to write a magic book that would fundamentally alter the way I would look at the subject so completely as this book had with chess. Although I’ve yet to write (or read) that book, I am convinced it can be done.
The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy – E. D. Hirsch et al.
If you had to pick a single book to study before becoming a contestant on the game show Jeopardy!, you would probably want to locate the most up-to-date edition of The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy that you couuld find. I’ve read through my copy so many times that it is literally falling apart; the binding has become separated and entire sections are loose. This is one of those books that improves your knowledge on a great number of subjects, which can in turn make you a more interesting person and performer.