Fully Booked | The Structural Conception of Magic

By Harapan Ong - Sunday, May 12, 2019

One of the benefits of shifting FULLY BOOKED from my Instagram page to a blog format is that I get to discuss and review magic books that are not only about tricks and routines, but also books about magic theory.

In some ways, nowadays I actually prefer to read books on theory rather than books on tricks. For me, I find these books to be more inspiring than reading through yet another variation on an Ace Assembly. However, I have actually met some magicians who balk on the idea of reading theory books, citing two main reasons:

They are boring and dry to read. The ideas they espouse are not grounded in real world performance situations, and are simply too theoretical to apply practically.

On the first point, I have nothing much to say, except that I actually find theory books to be more thought-provoking and interesting to read as compared to a really dry, technical book on sleight of hand card magic. It really boils down to the individual writing style of the author - I have read books on tricks that are a breeze to read, and also have slaved through books at the other end of the spectrum.

On the second point, however, I think there is a case to be made. I would completely agree that someone who only reads theory without actually attempting to apply any of these ideas to their magic is simply wasting their time. It is like a physicist who only comes up with wacky theories without actually bothering to check if his or her theories are correct through an actual experiment.

So, what’s the point of reading up on theory, then?

My argument for theory is simple: while theory is useless without the practical, I would argue that the practical cannot be fully understood without good theory. To me, theory is the framework for understanding WHY we do certain things in magic, whereas the practical informs us HOW to do those things. A magician who only reads theory will be crippled because all that theory is not applicable, while the magician who only cares about the practical wil be blind. He or she may know what to do and how to do it through experience, but not have any understanding as to why certain things works beyond a superficial “I know it works because it works”.

Let’s take our featured book for today: The Structural Conception of Magic by the Spanish maestro himself, Arturo de Ascanio. This book is the first volume in a series of four books. The second and third books are on his card magic, while the fourth book are on colour changing knives. However, you can easily how much more coveted the first book is by the fact that the first book was the only one that went out of stock, and had to be reprinted. This is not surprising, because I think the first book is probably the most important one in the series for every magician to read and learn from.

What this book provides is Ascanio’s framework for understanding how and why magic works. Now, Ascanio is of course very well known for his contributions to magical theory. For example, I love his simple and succinct definition of a magic effect as something that consists a an initial situation, a magical moment and a final situation. Just to use a simple example from the book, the Linking Rings effect has the initial situation of two rings that are shown unlinked, a magical moment of clinking the rings together, and a final situation of the rings being linked.

In this book, you will also learn, in Ascanio’s own words, important theories like:

Anti-Contrasting Parenthesis: Certain poorly timed actions, words or badly structured incidents can cause the contrast between the initial and final situation to be muddied and blurred. This is something to be avoided. Parenthesis of Forgetfulness: Using correctly timed actions, words or incidents to separate the secret sleight and the final effect, so that your tricks are harder to deconstruct. In-Transit Actions: The importance of timing your sleights in your routine such that secret sleights can be concealed more effectively by making them “in-transit” actions, and misdirecting your audience to the supposedly more important “final” action.

These are just an incredibly small selection of the theories that Ascanio teaches in this book. The descriptions are very detailed, with sufficient examples to explain what these theories actually mean. Ascanio goes into important topics like misdirection (he has three different degrees of misdirection), how to practice technique in magic, how to study magic, effective presentation and how to use concepts of “looseness” and “naturalness” to disarm your audience. He explains how all these things contribute to the overall goal of building a magical atmosphere to immerse your audience in.

This is genuinely one of my favourite books to read in magic - not just for theory, but even in general. However, if I had to nitpick one thing I don’t like about this book, it would be how the information in the book is formatted. The book is categorised into four different chapters: Thoughts on Magic, Interviews, The Structural Conception of Magic and Creativity. And as I was going through the book, I started to realise that each chapter kind of covers the same topics, just done in different ways. For example, the second chapter, containing a series of interviews between Ascanio and a few other magicians, including Juan Tamariz, is an interesting read. However, besides some of the interviews going into more personal questions, quite a lot of is just different magicians asking Ascanio about topics like misdirection, technique and the various Ascanian theories that has been and will be described in detail in Chapters 1 and 3. In fact, speaking of chapters 1 and 3, they also cover pretty much the same topics in varying levels of detail. Only Chapter 4, on creativity, seems to be a short standalone chapter that is definitely worth reading.

I think the reason for this is because this book is actually, from what I understand, a compilation of different lectures, notes, and interviews that Ascanio was involved in. Hence, you are going to expect some overlap in topics between each interview or essay. I don’t think this overlap detracts from the sublime quality of the content in this book - as I mentioned previously, this is a nitpick. My suggestion is to read the book with that in mind - if you prefer to learn theory in a conversational style, you may prefer to check out Chapter 2. If you prefer to learn theory in a more formal, essay-like manner, Chapter 3 might be more your cup of tea. Just take note that each chapter goes into the same topics in varying degrees of detail, so you might want to read it from cover to cover eventually.

The Structural Conception of Magic is a fantastic book on the theories of one of magic’s true giants, Arturo de Ascanio. Do yourself a favour and pick up this book today, and make yourself a better magician.

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