Secret Agenda by Roberto Giobbi
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii January, 2011)
Roberto Giobbi needs no introduction—certainly not to readers of Genii or practitioners of sleight-of-hand magic with playing cards—considering that he contributes his superb "Genii Sessions" column to this magazine, and is the author of the five-volume collection, Card College, doubtless the most widely-read such instructional magic texts in the world.
Mr. Giobbi's latest contribution takes a form that has been seen in other fields and brings it to magic for the first time of which I am aware, namely a "day book," offering a (mostly) magical entry per day for an entire calendar year.
His entire introduction to Secret Agenda reads distinctly unlike that of your typical magic book, reflecting a perspective on magic, and life, that is subtle, intelligent, and genuinely cosmopolitan. "I don't intend this to be a pragmatic how-to book," he declares, but rather, "I hope to convey the idea that the pursuit of magic is not just an occupation, but a way of life, an expression of oneself as a part of humanity"Mr. Giobbi has long had the rare talent as a conjuring author and educator to put himself into his work, as one must do if one is to create art, performance or otherwise, of any consequence. Investing and revealing oneself in purely instructional material like the Card College volumes is a delicate business, one that Mr. Giobbi has nonetheless managed gracefully, not only in his approach to instruction, but particularly in the fact that the contents of those volumes, albeit approaching an encyclopedic scope, are actually reflections of his own personal choices and preferences. This is a feature, not a bug, but an important one to keep in mind when studying those invaluable works.
However, the mission of those works remains a constraining force; one desires a little less bias from a teacher than from an artist; while the more bias an artist reveals, the more effective an artist he may turn out to be.
In Secret Agenda, while Mr. Giobbi may not entirely free himself of the yoke of the teacher's constraints—the book is clearly instructional—nevertheless he also throws himself fully into his most personal and artistically revealing work to date. The most satisfying and exhilarating magic books have always been those in which the reader can hear and feel the presence of a distinctive individual artist's voice—The Books of Wonder are a fine contemporary example—and such works are few and far between. With Secret Agenda, Roberto Giobbi reveals a great deal of himself, his work, his art, and his life and world—while also establishing himself as one of the most articulate spokesman of his generation for a vision of magic as art.
The book's fundamental concept enables its deeply engaging impact: Secret Agenda is a magical book of days, allowing for a variety of content that reflects the scope of the author's own eclecticism. Thus there are tricks, sleights, finesses, subtleties, tips, seven days of ideas about the Ambitious Card, instructions for getting any magic book to lie flat for convenient study, how to properly put your hand in your pocket, a succinct meditation on "The Art of Close-Up Magic" (an artistic call to arms), thoughts on "Commerce vs. Art" (an elegant artistic mission statement), quotes about art, quotes about magic, instructions for warming a rare cognac, and a plentiful lot of marvelous lists: lists of favorite books, favorite tricks, a list of "operating principles in card magic," a list of "10 Tips on Marketing Yourself" (which, taken as tips for life, might be worth the price of the book to someone) I simply love these glimpses into the an artist's personal notebook, providing an archeology of the individual, artifacts to pore over and endlessly ponder the implications.
And speaking of notebooks, the author also reveals his personally developed tools for categorizing, file-keeping, note-taking and the like the kind of information that has priceless value to any serious student who puts even one such habit to good use and the likelihood is great that you will find application for many more than that.
Among the tricks and techniques, readers learn: how to, by blowing through a straw, inflate a piece of paper into an egg which is then broken into a glass; a clever idea for enabling any ordinary wallet to function as a Himber wallet (along with a trick application); how to secretly force your dinner guests to choose your preferred bottle of wine to accompany dinner; and numerous excellent and subtle approaches to card controls and locations, shuffles, forces, shifts, cuts, palming, deck switches, color changes, unpublished material from Vernon, Kaps, Ascanio, and much more. If you put these techniques to use you will become a better magician; if you study them to the point of understanding their underlying motivations and reasoning, you might become a greater artist.
The credits and footnotes provide an education in and of themselves, and there will doubtless be minor corrections and additions to future editions, as occasional errors in a book of this nature are bound to creep in, given the years of work of accumulating its contents from various sources and time periods. The book is not meant to be read the way I had to read it, and I envy others their opportunity to savor its rich bouquet rather than merely chug for the buzz. Put it by your bedside along with a pack of cards and a highlighting pen, and you will be assured at least one full year of contemplative pleasures before closing your eyes each night. Even compelled by the task at hand to consume the book in haste, I found it to be, quite simply, one of the most thoroughly enjoyable reading experiences I have had in years.
Another of Secret Agenda's charms is the fact that I find it endlessly quotable. Mr. Giobbi offers, "I believe there is no marketing strategy that can replace sincerity, especially when it is fortified with a master's degree in competence and unconditional, life-long devotion to your discipline [emphasis per original]." And here is another quote that bears repeating, attributed to Jean-Eugene Robert Houdin: "It is better for a man to honor his profession than to be honored by it." Roberto Giobbi achieves the former in spades with Secret Agenda, and thoroughly deserves the latter for his achievement.