How to Read a Magic Book by Ricky Smith

By Ricky Smith - Thursday, May 23, 2019


I remember a lecture that Tommy Wonder gave many years ago. It was a fantastic lecture where he read his lecture notes, 1 page, folded, with four sentences. He read the whole thing, and they were available for sale for $10. He later did a few tricks which were printed up in a much larger booklet, which was free…if you bought the lecture notes. This story is pertinent because the lecture notes were essentially a list of books that really drove home the importance that books have in our development as magicians. They were the most important thing that Tommy Wonder, one of the greatest magicians and thinkers who has ever lived, thought he should tell magicians about. Accordingly, it may be beneficial to not only know the value of books, but to have some helpful techniques for getting the most out of them.

Starting Out: Get Familiar with the Book

You may have purchased a magic book in order to learn a certain effect or sleight, so you decide to dive right in and learn that particular thing right away. Try to avoid this when you can, so you can really get the most you can out of a book. Oftentimes, the best stuff is in the Introduction and other parts of the book, aside from the tricks and moves, since they will often provide perspective into where the tricks come from or what the creator’s thought process was. In turn, this information will allow you to better understand the reason certain effects were chosen and what makes them stand out. For example, the introduction may inform you that the book is a collection of clever ideas for the torn and restored card, but that the only one the author thinks is really worthwhile, outside of an academic perspective, is the third method, which works great for lay performances. If you had missed the introduction, you may find yourself having a rough time with the first version and neglecting the rest of the book.

Alternatively, you may miss something of extraordinary value, because you were quick to search out that clever way of holding a pinky break. For example, John Carney’s Carneycopia or The Dai Vernon Book of Magic contain opening essays that are some of the best magical thinking in the entire lexicon!

Michael Skinner suggested going through every book with a pencil in hand. If you don’t want to write in your books, you should definitely keep an organized notebook for this. Mr. Skinner would mark each of the effects with a certain number of “x”s. Three “x”s meant he really liked the effect and wanted to work on it. Then whenever you go back to a book, you can quickly locate the items that were most interesting. Figure out a system that works for you and stick with it!

Learning the Effect

The course you take when learning an effect can vary – maybe you learn the moves first and then the entire effect or you just work slowly through, piece by piece. Either way, a solid understanding of the effect is most important. Reread the effect description several times, considering the perspective of the spectators, both for method and effect, as well as your own perspective. Additionally, understanding the effect will help you follow along during the explanation, as you’ll know what to anticipate and have less of a chance of getting lost.

CREATIVITY EXERCISE: Once an understanding of the effect is attained, practice your creativity by thinking of as many ways you know to accomplish the same effect: using your own modus operandi, techniques you already know, or perhaps even new techniques.

Once you’ve thoroughly understood the effect that you are trying to bring about, take a moment to read the explanation without the props, in order to familiarize yourself with the method. Just a little work here or a quick glance at the illustrations will help you be better prepared when you do go through the effect with the props in-hand.

One of the things to be careful of when you are going through the effect is to focus too much on the text and skip the illustrations, or vice versa. Make sure that you don’t rely too heavily on one or the other, but use both to achieve the best understanding.

When learning difficult sleights, don’t just try to jump into practice. Try to form a mental image of what will take place before you get started with the physical aspects. A thorough understanding of proper technique will yield greater results in the long term. “To attain the highest degree of excellence at card manipulation much study and practice are necessary; but proficiency in the art quite sufficient for the purpose of entertainment or amusement may be acquired with very little effort if a thorough understanding is first obtained of the best and simplest methods of accomplishing the sleights” (Erdnase). Basically, you want to avoid practicing the wrong thing, as it is very difficult to unlearn a bad habit, and the easiest method is to learn correctly at the outset.

If you come to a sleight that is not explained, then it is usually referenced. Look it up. If you’re not able to look it up right away, make a note to research it later, and come back to it. Again, if you’re not keen on the idea of marking up a book you paid a lot of money for, use a post-it note or keep a separate notebook.

Keeping the Effect

Make an entry in your notebook, or somewhere convenient, that has the effect, any setup that is required, and a list of the sleights used. A quick reference to help you remember the effect is all that you need and will save you the need to reread the entire explanation.

Roberto Giobbi suggests making a deck of cards that has the name of an effect in your repertoire on each card. By cutting the cards, you can practice your whole repertoire at random. This will help you keep in practice on your growing repertoire and keep your practice routine from growing stale.

Michael Skinner would always group his effects in threes, an idea he learned from Charlie Miller and Faucett Ross. This technique allows you to remember a lot more magic, as you only need to recall the opening effect. Further, the trios you create can automatically have transitions and some sort of theatrical progression, which will improve your performance dramatically, instead of setting out to accomplish these goals during performance.

Finding More to Study

Research the references in books you already enjoy. The references will usually lead you where the person you are learning from found inspiration. This can be very rewarding, as you can see what your favorite magicians may have added or even missed. Learning these earlier methods can also give you guidance on how to move forward, or an earlier version might create an easier jumping off point for your own creativity.


Dai Vernon always used a quote that he attributed to Leonardo DaVinci, “Details make for perfection, but perfection is no detail.” Basically, doing something to perfection is not just part of the process, it is the result of much effort, and the synergy that comes out of the combination of all the smaller parts is what really makes the effect. Accordingly, it is of great importance that you take the time to really understand what makes your routines worth showing to people, and that means you must study. Learning from books is one of the best ways to unearth the principles and ideas that will make you amazing. Hopefully this guide will help you with this process!

Reader comments:


Tuesday, 05 March 2024 21:04 PM - Reply to this comment

This post should be included with every book purchase made on VI.
Thank you Mr.Smith!

***** 5 Stars!

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