Magic's Most Amazing Stories: a Collection of Incredible Stories from World Famous Magicians by Ivan Amodei
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii July, 2010)
IN A SENTENCE: I wish this book were better.
The notion of recording and collecting stories from magic's oral tradition is not only a good idea, it's an important one. Some of the very best information to be had in the world of magic history, lessons, tricks, methods is avail-able only in our rich spoken tradition. Some of the greaest moments of my life in magic have been experienced in late-night conversations with magician friends, old and young and contemporaries, friends and strangers alike. These are priceless experiences. As Adam Gopnik wrote in his lengthy piece about magic, "The Real Work" (The New Yorker, March 17, 2008), "Magicians have the most rapturous and absorbed shoptalk of any artists I know." There are few aspects of the magic culture more rewarding than sitting around with colleagues, late into the night, after the audience is long gone, "cutting up jackpots."
And so, in spirit, I am very much in support of the concept and efforts of Ivan Amodei, a professional and "award-winning magician," as the cover of his book loudly proclaims. And despite what some may imagine about the nature of this job of criticism, there is little joy to be had in beating up on the sincerely well intentioned. But while there are some pleasures to be found in the pages of this book, the result leaves much to be desired.
The pleasures, for me, are mostly found in stories from some of our elder statesman, stories told firsthand about legends past, but not too long past. Every story from Ron Wilson, for example, was fun to read, even if most I have been fortunate enough to hear before stories about Dai Vernon and Francis Carlyle and Kuda Bux and John Ramsay and Billy McComb, lovely stories about great performers saying genuinely witty and memorable things. (Mr. Wilson is credited for two such items in the index (an index mystifyingly organized by first names], but in fact, in the body of the book he is credited with quite a few more.) And elsewhere there are stories from a handful of real storytellers like a nice in-the-trenches experience courtesy of Max Maven, one of our greatest keepers of the story tradition in magic that will cause you to laugh out loud, and might make sufficient impression such that you might be inclined to repeat the story to someone else, often a measure of a good story.
That's the pleasant part of this book, and I suppose for some the cartoony children's-style book design might also be a plus, albeit it is not especially to my taste, and seems to me to comprise more padding than pleasure.
But if that were the worst of it, I'd be happy to recommend the book just the same. But, it's not the worst of it. For one, the overwhelming majority of these stories are not particularly entertaining, fascinating, instructive, or memorable. They fall under the heading of "Murphy's Law," to wit: What can go wrong, will. But more often than not, it's really, "What is bound to go wrong, when I am young and inexperienced and am woe-fully unprepared and have no idea what I'm doing ... will." Now, don't misunderstand me I'm not judging those who make mistakes. I've made plenty of them, including some of those described in these pages, and that's the nature of show business. Once you've had enough "flight time" where almost everything that can go wrong, has, you can start to crawl on stage with some well-earned confidence.
(And the wisdom to know that no matter what you've been through, eventually something is still going to happen that's never happened to you before.)
So I don't judge anyone here harshly. But that doesn't make everyone's hard-knocks course of study equally fascinating. When John Thompson tells you about making an entrance and then discovering he's forgotten to load any of his birds (a story that is not in these pages, but I hope you get to hear him tell it someday), that's a great story, because it's interesting to hear about a bonehead move by a true maestro, and it's even better to hear about it from one who is also a master raconteur.
The bottom line is that storytelling is a craft and an art, and neither are much on display in the pages of this sincere, enthusiastic, somewhat innocent book. Not entirely innocent, however—because it does seem to be poised, by way of its design and marketing, to be of interest to the public. But I can't see that the public would ever bother to slog through what must seem to non-magicians to be an endless array of minor Keystone Koppian adventures. And if they were to read it, they will also come across several unnecessary explanations of magic methods, and as well, some poorly offered descriptions of magical effects, in an attempt to provide clarity and context that, more often than not, doesn't quite do the job.
While the overwhelming percentage of these tales are not about the witty banter to be found in some of the Ron Wilson anecdotes, for example, another far smaller percentage is about "brushes with greatness," as David Letterman might say i.e., encounters with celebrities. These tales provide a slender excuse to allow the advertising for the book to include names like Paul McCartney, Matt Damon, and Tom Cruise. These stories are, by and large, mundane, and deeply uninteresting. This is by no means a universal; I've heard some great celebrity encounter stories, but these aren't them. You need more than a breathless, "Gee whiz, I met somebody famous and he's really a nice guy!"
Now, I hasten to clarify that this is meant as no slight to any of the storytellers themselves many of whom are fine storytellers in person. Their generous contributions have simply not been served well. Writing stories is not taking dictation, any more than reciting questions submitted by an audience approximates the skills of a professional interviewer. It would have been terrific had the work of these contributors been put in the hands of a skilled and experienced writer and editor, who might have guided the work with a sure hand, with an eye cast toward the reader's experience. When each of these individuals tells their story, I'm sure it's usually a fine tale, in the immediacy of the moment. But translating such dynamics to the page is a difficult and skilled job. And while I believe that Mr. Amodei is probably himself a sincere and charming gentle-man, he is, unfortunately, not up to the task. The money spent on design might have better gone to a real editor.
Now, I already know that I will be charged with the usual criminal offenses of picking and nits: picking on a nice guy and nit-picking details about which no one cares. So what if "summoned" is spelled "summand" and "Dunninger" is spelled "Dunniger"?
Well, for sake of discussion, then, let's dispense with all my complaints thus far. But now I must mention that Mr. Amodei sprinkles the book with historical tidbits, both long and short. With only one exception I can recall, none of these historical tales include sources, and in some cases, they seem to be sloppy recyclings of known works (for example, an un-sourced piece about Jasper Maskelyne seems a boiled down summary of The War Magician by David Price, a highly fictionalized account published in 1983). But okay, this isn't an academic book, you say. It's just some anecdotes. If everything isn't sourced or credited, it's not the worst flaw in the world.
Fine. It's late, I'm in a generous mood.
On page 246, we find one of these little sidebar entries, entitled simply: "Magic Books." Here is the complete unaltered text, in its entirety:
The first magic book in English came out in 1612.
Reginald Scot issued the book, The Discovery of Witchcraft to expose the sleight-of-hand artists of his time.
The original book is still in existence and is owned by a private collector.
Let us consider this for a moment. The first magic book in English did not come out in 1612. The book in question is not a magic book. And the cited date has nothing to do with Scot's Discoverie, since it was first published in 1584.
Scot's Discoverie is absolutely not an exposure of sleight-of-hand artists (albeit it includes a brief chapter of explanations of magic tricks). It is a critique of the witch burnings of Jamesian England. (While Mr. Amodei is not the first to convert the Old English "discoveries" into the modern "discovery," the change is gently misleading; "discoveries" in the original usage meant "explication of," hence it was a more accurate description of the book's content and intention.)
There are many copies of the first edition of Scot extant. I have handled several. Some are in private collections, some in public collections, some in libraries, some in universities, and so on. And so, here is a bit of "history"—provided to magicians or the public, take your pick in which out of 43 words, none are accurate. Not the book's title, date of publication, content, or the current status of surviving first editions (never mind the later ones).
Indeed, I am not a fan of Wikipedia as an academic source, but in case you think it might have been difficult for Mr. Amodei to have included an actual fact in his historical entry, here is the first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry about the book:
The Discoverie of Witchcraft was a partially skeptical book published by the English gentleman Reginald Scot in 1584, and intended as an exposé of medieval witchcraft. It contains a small section, intended to show how the public were fooled by charlatans, which is considered the first published material on magic.
That's 50 words. Mostly accurate (it's certainly not the first published material on magic, by far, but it might be the first in English). Like I said: I wish the book had been better. Fifty words might not have been enough to man-age it, but they could have made a difference.