By Subject

What One Book: Magic

We know you love the old “let’s pull the rabbit out of the hat” trick, but it’s time to move on to more advanced deceptions. As always, we gather a panel of experts to recommend books on a specific topic. We questioned magic practitioners and historians of the field to give you a sense of what’s possible in your own world–and what may be pure illusion.

Jim Steinmeyer – Illusion Designer/Author

Jim Steinmeyer has designed and invented magic illusions for leading magicians including Doug Henning and Ricky Jay and for Broadway shows like “Beauty and the Beast” and “Into the Woods.” His 2003 book and Los Angeles Times bestseller, Hiding the Elephant (HHHJ Mar/Apr 2004) is a history of stage magic. Steinmeyer’s new book is The Glorious Deception (July 2005), the biography of William Robinson, a little-known American magician who achieved fame by impersonating a Chinese magician and who was fatally shot on stage.

Learned Pigs and FireProof Women
By Ricky Jay (1986)
Ricky is a good friend and a remarkable magician; he manages to incorporate his love of magic history in every one of his performances. Learned Pigs is just one of Ricky’s compilations of his odd, beloved entertainers, and it introduces readers to astonishing characters like the armless fiddler, the human card index, and ‘Le Petomane,’ whose act can’t be adequately described without the benefit of Ricky’s careful prose. It’s great history and great fun.
The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick
How a Spectacular Hoax Became History
By Peter Lamont (2005)
Lamont has researched an astonishing little history about a modern-day fairy tale: how the famous Indian rope trick–the one where a rope is thrown up into the air and a boy climbs to the top–never was, never could be, and never will be. In fact, it should have been called the Chicago rope trick. It’s an amazing tale about myth, belief, and what happens when magic meets the modern media. Best of all, Lamont’s style makes this book a joy to read.
Phantoms of the Card Table
Confessions of a Card Sharp
By David Britland and Gazzo (2004)
Britland is well known among magicians for his careful research. Phantoms is a real mystery story and an amazing peek into the world of Walter Scott, the card cheat who astonished professional magicians. Sure, you’ve heard about second dealing and false shuffling, but Britland and Gazzo explain what it really means to learn these skills and utilize them in a high-stakes game. The appendix of the book even shows ‘how it’s done,’ if you care to give it a try!


Daniel Stashower – Author

Daniel Stashower is the author of five mystery novels dealing with magic and magicians, including Elephants in the Distance(1989) and The Houdini Specter (2001). He has also written on the subject for Smithsonian, Connoisseur, and American History, and has been a member of the Society of American Magicians for 25 years.

The Illustrated History of Magic
By Milbourne Christopher (1973)
A wildly entertaining tour of magic’s traditions and star performers, from ancient times through the golden age of vaudeville. Christopher was himself a master magician and writes with a showman’s flair, especially when relating the adventurous life stories of such figures as Harry Kellar, Howard Thurston, and Harry Houdini. The book has recently been updated by the author’s widow to include such modern stars as Doug Henning and David Copperfield.
Mulholland’s Book of Magic
By John Mulholland (1963)
‘Magic,’ Mulholland liked to say, ‘is the art of creating illusion agreeably.’ The author’s Book of Magic is agreeable in the extreme, providing a great deal of practical instruction in a style infused with the charm and elegance of a bygone age. A celebrated performer, historian, and lecturer, Mulholland was one of the lead- ing authorities of his time–so much so that when the editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica needed a definition of magic, they came to him.


Michael Ammar – Magician, Instructor

One of the foremost teachers of magic in the world, Michael’s instructional DVDs have provided a new way to practice the art. In David Copperfield’s introduction to The Magic of Michael Ammar (now in its 17th printing), he calls Michael the Magician’s Magician.

Mark Wilson’s Complete Course in Magic
By Mark Wilson (1975, 1988)
A course designed to teach a wide range of fundamentals, from sleight of hand to large illusions, with copious illustrations for each step of the instructions. Great information that is incredibly affordable. Best dollar-for-dollar value.
The Royal Road to Card Magic
By Jean Hugard and Frederick Braue (1981)
Although written in the ’40s, nobody has done a better job illuminating the path from beginner to astonishing cardician. Information from how to simply hold the deck to professional sleight of hand, in the ideal step-by-step sequence for effective learning.
Now You See It, Now You Don’t!
Lessons in Sleight of Hand
By Bill Tarr and Barry Ross, illustrator (1976)
Published 30 years ago, this was the first of a new era of magic instructions featuring hundreds of ‘moving’ drawings, making sleight of hand easier to learn than ever before.


Ruth Brandon – Author

Ruth Brandon, who lives in London, is the author of The Spiritualists (1984) and The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini (1994), among other books. Her most recent book, The People’s Chef, about the life of the amazing Alexis Soyer, looks at food and class in England, France, and Crimea in the nineteenth century (and it includes recipes!).

The Psychology of the Psychic
By David Marks and Richard Kammann (1980)
This is the best book I know on what is by far the most interesting technical aspect of magic–the psychological reasons why illusions work. What’s the real explanation of coincidence? Why is misdirection so powerful? Why do we so want to believe in the supernatural that, unlike all other scientists, experimenters in the paranormal may be caught cheating time and again without any damage to their credibility? Read Kammann and Marks, and you’ll never believe in fairies ever again.
Italian Folk Tales
By Italo Calvino (1956, translated 1980)
Calvino journeys into the ancient world of magic, which of course is all about our deepest fears and fantasies. Traditional folk tales all follow the same series of patterns–suitors perform magic tasks to win the hands of princesses, three sons go out into the world to make their fortunes, witches come to claim their prey and are thwarted. Calvino’s versions are so gripping and poetic that they transcend ‘folk’ and become great literature.
Haroun and the Sea of Stories
By Salman Rushdie (1990)
Haroun is, in my view, Rushdie’s best book. Like the Calvino book–and like all real magic–it works for both children and adults. All Rushdie’s books play with language, but in this one the play transcends mannerism to become an essential part of the story, which is itself about the magic of stories, the enchanted world, where nothing is impossible, and anything can happen.

This article is published courtesy of Bookmarks Magazine.

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