Big Friday sale

The Dai Vernon Book of Magic by Lewis Ganson

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii December, 1994)


There will never be another Dai Vernon. It is no small irony that this fact seems to be abundantly clear to all but those self-chosen few who would attempt to inherit his mantle. Vernon's powers were vast, his effect, beyond measure. As Max Maven wrote upon his death, "...this brilliant man could have flourished in any area of human endeavor; we are all so very fortunate that he chose to flourish in ours."

Now a new generation has the opportunity to be touched by the Professor, as L&L Publishing has arranged to re-release one of the greatest conjuring texts ever written, The Dai Vernon Book of Magic, written by one of Vernon's premier amanuenses, Lewis Ganson. This is, in fact, the first of the entire catalog of Vernon-by-Ganson titles, originally published by Supreme Magic Co. of England, which L&L Publishing will eventually release. Future installments will include the four volumes of the seminal Inner Secrets of Card Magic series, and the timeless Malini and Leipzig works.

I never imagined I would have the chance to review a work such as this. And no doubt there are many readers who will wonder if the exercise is worth the trouble—after all, why not simply say that this is a "must-have" book and be done with it? I would suggest that it is inappropriate to consider this book simply in its historical context, and in fact I will leave much of that subject aside. I propose that we consider this book on the true merits—as we would consider any new release.

Considered in that light, anyone who calls him or herself a magician—and especially anyone with a grain of interest in close-up magic—simply must read this book. If you haven't, the seizing of the moniker of "magician" may well be reduced to an extraordinary claim. This book is both a primer and an advanced guide to sleight of hand magic A devoted long-term study of this text will go far toward making you a magician of merit. It may well help to make you an artist. It might even make you a better human being.

For the latter, turn to Vernon's own foreword. Here he establishes a practice continued throughout the book, and indeed throughout his life—that of giving credit to others. There are names right here in these early pages that the average magician would barely recognize, but that instead we all know well, largely due to Vernon's lifelong generosity in promoting the legacies of others. And consider his remarks concerning the pleasures and rewards of practice—and his forthright advice for those who might be best served by turning to a hobby other than magic. Thus the book begins with examples and advice not just for magic, but for life. Chapter One will tell you about how Vernon lived his. The famous story of his first meeting with Cliff Green is recounted, and much of Vernon's experience as a professional performer is detailed as well. These few pages reduce the chatter of Vernon's few detractors to inconsequence. Vernon was a successful performer who was bored by the constraints of commercial success, and chose—chose—to pursue a different path.

Chapter Two concerns the renowned "Vernon Touch." It does seem that everything Vernon touched, he changed—sleights, tricks, lives. This chapter sets forth some of his most fundamental principles—of misdirection, of "using one's head," and of his immortal mantra, naturalness. His analysis of the French Drop is an archetype for the transformation that Vernon worked on the field of sleight of hand—of the transition from the contrived handlings of the nineteenth century to the Vernon-led revolution of naturalness that we now regard as the modern standard. Can this chapter teach you to be a true artist? Consider Ganson's telling comment that while he would call a particular technique of Vernon's "perfect," he could not, because "...Dai will not have that word." That was not false humility on Vernon's part—it lay at the heart of his character. The restless, obsessive search for perfection, coupled with the relentless conviction that it could not be achieved, goes to the core of Vernon's nature—as magician, and as human being.

"If people just cannot derive pleasure and satisfaction from practice and are not prepared to expend the time and thought and energy required because they find it irksome, then magic is not for them—they should turn to a different hobby." Dai Vernon, The Dai Vernon Book of Magic

But perhaps you are just a magician, and you don't care about being a better person, or artist, only a better magician. Then look to the remaining twenty-two chapters! Here you will find nine chapters of card sleights and tricks, including original plots and re-worked classics; three chapters of coin routines, plus additional coin material; general magic including the Rosini Thimble Routine, the Three Ball Transposition, and Vernon's exquisite Ball, Cone and Handkerchief, a platform, one-cup and billiard ball routine. As with the original Stars of Magic, mastery of this caliber of material—representing both the foundation and the pinnacle of the art of sleight of hand magic—could well be regarded as the measure of a close-up magician's ability.

There is still much more—silk knots, the Thumb Tie, Linking Rings—quick tricks, including a charming dice sequence, and brief but invaluable tips on sleights like the Pass and the Second Deal—but I will leave off with perhaps the most important contribution of all: The Cups and Balls.

Above all, Vernon was an orchestrator, bringing his great insight to bear on the very best of existing elements. Then he added his own unique artistic and technical sense, synthesizing the closest thing we had to the perfection he would never claim. The Vernon routine for the Cups and Balls, presaged by his impromptu approach in the Stars of Magic, has become the standard by which all Cups and Balls routines are measured, and from which most are born. The seminal basis of routines by countless other masters, including Skinner, Carney, Gertner, and in almost unrecognizable form, Bob Read, the Vernon routine has influenced countless performers of this, perhaps the greatest single trick in magic. Vernon used the best, and discarded the rest; he embraced Malini's abandonment of the servante and gibeciere, he disregarded Hoffman's repeated re-showing of balls already under cups as a contrived excuse to gain access to them. Mastering this routine will be the work of a year, and perhaps a lifetime, but such mastery will serve as an open doorway to all the treasures of the art of magic—there is no greater course of learning. And elsewhere in the text, the Charlie Miller penetration is also described, perhaps the single most beautiful effect in all of sleight of hand.

It is all here for you, a banquet overflowing with riches, too much to consume at a single meal. Ganson's descriptions are on the whole lucid and eminently useful. He did have his flaws, generally when his failure to grasp precise technical details sometimes showed in the resulting description. One notorious example in this volume is the incorrect description of the Vernon Wand Spin Vanish, and the student is advised to turn to some of the re-descriptions that Michael Ammar has provided to learn the proper execution. But such failures are rare. The book is illustrated extensively with photographs. L&L has done nothing less than a superb job of reproducing this work. They have made no alterations whatsoever, except to slightly enlarge the format of the original to match that of the Chronicles volumes. The book, and especially the photographs, thankfully re- screened for this edition, only benefits from this adjustment. Vernon once said to Johnny Thompson that he'd pay a thousand dollars to find another Erdnase— meaning another book on conjuring that was as invaluable as "The Expert." Thompson replied that he already owned such a book, and that he did not have to pay so dearly for it—he had a copy of the Vernon Book of Magic. Now you too can have this thousand-dollar volume for a pittance.

10" x 7" hardcover, laminated color dust jacket; 239 enamel paper pages; illustrated with 190 photographs plus one page of diagrams: 1994: Publisher: L&L Publishing.