Big Friday sale

Exposed by James Randi

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii August, 2005)


America's premier skeptical, psychicbusting, escaping, lecturing, award-winning, book- writing, and sued magician, James "The Amazing" Randi, now presents us with his tenth book. Having spent a lifetime investigating, writing, and speaking about pseudo- scientific and fraudulent claims, he is eminently qualified to present this handy and dandy little reference work. Clearly labeled as reflecting the author's own opinionated, informed, whimsical, sometimes satirical and always "Decidedly Skeptical" point of view, there should be no confusion as to what to expect here. And Randi delivers, thoroughly—with hundreds upon hundreds of all manner of occult claim, from past to present. In fact, there are about 666 entries, oddly enough—depending on how you count the entry for "bilocation"—but I doubt there is any special significance to this number. Considering the wealth of bilge, balderdash, blather and bunkum that overwhelms the shelves of popular bookstores and the media in general nowadays, this lonely volume is a welcome respite. Of course, you may have to search until you find it buried in the occult shelves amidst volumes on angels and UFO abductions, but your adventure will be rewarded with a bountiful resource, full of facts, fancy, and a healthy dose of humor besides. H.L. Mencken said that "One horselaugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms," and Randi continues in this tradition, at times providing pages of factual analysis, at times cryptic and humorous dismissals of the piffle and poppycock crowd.

There are lengthy discussions, for example, of subjects like astrology, dowsing and crop circles, providing historical background as well as contemporary research. In the horselaugh category, Randi concludes his discussion of tea leaf reading, for example, by explaining that "The use of tea bags has not only made the art more difficult, but less accurate Coffee grounds are also read, but there is no record of Shredded Wheat or coleslaw being so employed. Not yet." One can rest assured that were such practices currently employed, they would be included in this volume; the book is all the more valuable because one cannot be assured that such practices won't appear on the scene tomorrow. Throughout the text there are pleasing surprises and puzzles to be discovered by careful readers with a sense of humor; magicians might even recognize the mysterious personage of Martinet Jardinier in a curious entry. Unfortunately, St. Martin's Press could stand to invest in some decent proofreaders; the very same entry contains only one of many unfortunate typos, elsewhere the letter "j" was somehow substituted for the word "bible" in the entry concerning "angels," and there are other such small but avoidable annoyances.

Mr. Randi has long been a lightning rod for controversy, and this book is not likely to reduce the sparks. No matter the claims of his detractors, however, his credentials are firmly established and widely recognized; not only is he a recipient of the famed MacArthur "genius" grant, but following on the heels of a recent profile in Scientific American magazine, he is expected to begin a monthly column for that venerable journal some time late this year. And while Randi has been badgered by lawsuits from Uri Geller and others of his ilk in recent years, recent settlements have now brought all of those disputes to an end, without Randi having had to pay out one single penny in awards to Mr. Geller or any other complainant. For those who might consider damage awards as a significant indicator of success or failure in such matters, clearly it would be difficult to interpret Mr. Geller's efforts as successful, unless perhaps you are the author of his current press releases.

Mr. Randi has his critics, of course, and they are free to either ignore this book or rant about it. But it seems to me that the content is clearly identified for what it is, and as such it is a delightful and usefully informative read indeed. What it is not is a definitive, all-encompassing, exhaustive academic treatise. Nor is it an objective, even-handed, dispassionately analytical tome. Such things have their place, but as Mencken suggested, so does work of this nature. The other side deals in sound bites and fortune cookie phrases, and someone needs to respond. Who better than The Amazing one himself? Keep this on the shelf as a handy reference guide and a fun place to visit, and make sure to buy a copy for that friend who has too many Shirley MacLaine books on his or her shelf.

6-1/2" x 9-1/2" Hardcover with laminated dustjacket; 284 pages, Illustrated with photographs and drawings, 1995; Published by St. Martin's Press