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BOOK REVIEW: Fooling Houdini by Alex Stone

Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the MindFooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind by Alex Stone
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book operates on two levels. The first is the autobiography of a magician, telling a tale from being gonged off stage at the “Magic Olympics” through a rising obsession with the craft before rolling into his redemption. On a second level, it’s a history of magic in the modern age (although there are occasional forays into more ancient history.) The author tells of the magicians that inspired him, some of whom he learned from personally and some were from the preceding generation, such as Dai Vernon—the magician who actually fooled Houdini. However, the book’s title doesn’t come from Vernon’s feat with the Ambitious Card Trick, but is instead a more general statement about the challenge of tricking magicians—an accomplishment a great deal more prestigious than fooling a pod of eight year olds at little Timmy’s birthday party.

Stone was a science writer turned Physics graduate student, and so the science of magic and mentalism comes out frequently. However, this book is distinct from one such as “Sleights of Mind” by Macknik & Martinez-Conde, which is focused entirely upon conveying the science of how magic tricks work (primarily neuroscience with a focus on how the sense organs and brain interact to a magician’s advantage.) In truth, I expected this book to more along the lines of “Sleights of Mind.” However, in a way, it’s a good thing that it wasn’t. Stone reviews the science that Macknik and Martinez-Conde drill down into enough so that it’s a good review if one has read that book (I had) or an introduction if one hasn’t. What Stone does a great deal more of is describing the perfection one’s craft. Along the way he shows us a blind card handler with a preternatural capacity for tactile control of the deck, he takes us to clown college to improve showmanship, and he meets up with some street hustlers of the 3-card monte variety.

Throughout the course of the book are ups and downs that maintain the tension. In fact, one chapter is actually entitled “It’s Annoying and I Asked You to Stop,” about the inevitable point at which a magician’s obsession with improving his/her skills stops being cute to loved ones. There is also a chapter about Stone’s [almost] being blackballed from the magic community for revealing secrets in a general readership magazine (I guess that’s a muggle-mag?) An important part of the story is Stone’s search for a Yoda, a wizened member of the magic community who can give him the deeper insight needed to fool a room of experts. He eventually finds said individual, but is not quickly adopted. (It has a hero’s journey feel through this part.)

I thought that the author did a good job of building an interesting story arc within a work of nonfiction. This increases the book’s readability, particular if one has no particular interest in magic. One need not be knowledgeable about the discipline to find the story interesting and to learn some fascinating tidbits. If nothing else, one will learn how con men cull marks, so one can avoid falling prey to their potent psychology (though I expect the subset of readers of books and those tricked into gambling 3-card monte is probably not huge.)

One area in which a reader might be dissatisfied is in the coverage given to mentalism and math-based tricks. The alliterative subtitle makes reference to “magicians, mentalists, and math geeks…” but the bulk of the book is about close-up magic; mentalism and mathematical methods don’t come in until the last few chapters. If you’re expecting that the coverage of those topics will be on par with that of close-up magic, this may not be the book for you. Still, while this was different from I expected, it didn’t hurt my impression of the book.

I enjoyed this book, and received some intriguing insights from it. I’d recommend it for those interested in magic and in particular the craft and science of it. Even if you aren’t that interested in magic, you might find the story of one man’s development of his discipline to be worth reading.

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1 Comment

  1. […] There’s another way in which the Batman comparison may be more apropos than it first seems. While Houdini didn’t fight violent criminals like the Joker or Bane, he did take on the con artists—most notably mediums who preyed on grieving family members. Like most magicians today—notably Penn & Teller and James Randi—Houdini was adamant that his tricks were products of skill and involved no supernatural powers whatsoever. As I say, today magic is heavily populated by science nerds who love that magic is the exploitation of the limitations of our sensory and nervous system organs, and who reject the supernatural, but in Houdini’s day there were still many frauds and charlatans in the industry. (It should be noted that Houdini invariably discovered these medium’s tricks or the restrictions that he insisted upon to study the act were unacceptable and the mediums and they backed out, but when he put out a challenge that he could figure out any magic trick he was shown three times he was stumped. However, the magician who stumped him, Dai Vernon, made no claims of supernatural abilities. He was just a supremely skilled close-up magician and—to be fair—showed Houdini multiple versions of the same trick, making it virtually impossible for Houdini to pin down the trick. Note: this story isn’t in Lalicki’s book, but is something I read in another book, I think in “Fooling Houdini“.) […]


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