One Man’s View of Impromptu by Martin Gardner
My magic background (to help put my remarks in context):
I've been a serious amateur for > 40 years, with a primary interest in performing close-up sleight of hand for laypersons. I never was able to read the original Encylcopedia of Impromptu Magic (or “Impromtu” depending on what printing we are talking about ). I never met Mr. Gardner, and while I have greatly profited from his innovations (i.e., his seminal contribution to the Poker Deal genre), I have never made a serious in-depth study of his material. Finally, I did pay the discounted preorder price for this book years ago.
My aim is to write a detailed review to perhaps help those still sitting on the fence in terms of purchase.
The book arrived from LA shrinkwrapped, bubble wrapped, in a very sturdy box (Thanks, Mr. Karr!). It’s a gold-stamped, hardcover book that is approximately 8.5” x 10.25” x 2.0” with 864 numbered pages. The liquid-coated dustjacket has a custom Jim Steranko cover (as seen on the recent Genii cover). The book contains a plethora of well-reproduced vintage photographs in black and white and sepia tones. There is a generous inclusion of full color plates showing trade cards of stunts and magic with everyday objects. The binding is high quality, and the whole thing lays nice and flat for study. I own several publications from The Miracle Factory (TMF) and this volume certainly lives up to their high physical standards. In fact, the tasteful use of gold highlights in the text is an attractive touch that doesn’t appear in the other TMF books I own. Overall, a very handsome book (I’m sure that cover will grow on me over time).
Celebrity introductory essays:
Teller, John Fisher, and Mark Setteducati, all express admiration for the original work and Mr. Gardner himself.
A “brief” (24 pages!) history of impromptu magic by Todd Karr is included. This essay is an impressive, as all kinds of references to the subject at hand are forged into a chronological narrative, which serves to effectively weave the history of the original publication into the context of its subject matter. While some of the references seem a tiny bit of a stretch to me (e.g., the “major role” an orange gag plays in The Godfather), the essay seemed very well researched. I’m no historical expert, so I’ll leave the determination of the veracity of the essay’s details to others, but for me, it was a fascinating read.
An interview with Mr. Gardner by Don Albers (first published in 2005) follows. Denny always says that you can learn a lot about performing magic by reading biographies of magicians. While Mr. Gardner was not a professional performer, I think it’s safe to say he was a magical genius in so many ways. While this piece is certainly not a formal biography, I enjoyed learning about Mr. Gardner through his own words and vintage images. (Nice to know he had a family and didn’t seem to share the tragic upbringing of some of our other polymaths.)
Following a short publisher’s note, the 1978 introduction to the book by Martin Gardner, and a transcription of a telephone interview of Mr. Gardner, the meat of the book begins.
The original material in the book has been reproduced, but has been reorganized within the alphabetical original categories for the most part (From “Apples” to “Zippers”). That is, within each main category (say “Apples”) new subcategories such as “Effects, Stunts, Jokes, Curiosities, Games, and Toys” contain the original material, all resorted under the appropriate subcategory. In the original book, Mr. Gardner listed the various items under the main heading without titles for the most part. Mr. Karr has added helpful bold-face titles for each of the entries which should make finding the veritable “needles” in this huge haystack much easier. The “Comments and Additions” space (for notes in the margin) in the original has been redacted. The net result of this reformatting is a net positive for me, and should make research much easier. (I don’t envy Mr. Karr in having to come up with those unique item titles!). A very comprehensive index that includes references to those new titles has been produced. It is important to note, however, that the original page numbers have been deleted and there does not appear to be any additional material included in this section, save the occasional "proof note" from Mr. Gardner.
What follows is likely to be the most controversial section of the book for many. It was well known that Mr. Gardner kept a massive file of index cards, pictures, and clippings regarding magic and presumably related subjects. This book presents 75 pages worth of scans of some of this material that concerns magic. The problem is: much of it is virtually unreadable, as it is written in Mr. Gardner’s own hand. While these images are arranged under headings that roughly approximate those of the main text, it still didn’t help me make sense of a large portion of this material.
The next section reproduces correspondence between Mr. Gardner and various magic luminaries (Karl Fulves was apparently a frequent correspondent). While some of these missives represent pleasantries only, many do include descriptions of various effects. (There is also an interesting crediting faux pas involving several legendary names addressed) In contrast to the previous section, these are typed letters, and can be easily understood--although Mr. Gardner was apparently not a fan of correction fluid. I was also very inspired by how active and vital he was well into his later years.
Reprints of four of Mr. Gardner’s previously published magic booklets follow: Match-ic, After the Dessert, Magic for the Science Class, and Over the Coffee Cups. Although these manuscripts are reproduced in full, they are also presented in 4-Up format (i.e., 4 pages of the original are reproduced all on a single page). This results in rather small text that makes for rough sledding for this bifocal wearer. YMMV.
The next section is entitled “Gardner’s Last Revisions.” Mr. Gardner’s corrections, additions, and revisions to the original text that he intended to be included in this volume are reproduced here in their original form. They are typed, but all typos are corrected by hand by Mr. Gardner. They are certainly readable, but they also reference the page numbers of the original text, which do not appear in this current edition. There are some real gems in this section, including a diabolical offering Mr. Gardner felt was the "finest of all toothpick puzzles." He then goes on to write: "The aha! solution is left to the reader." You can almost see the Cheshire grin as he wrote that.
Finally, 24 photographs of Mr. Gardner with the Alice in Wonderland sculpture in Central Park (taken by recreational thinker, Scot Morris) precede the aforementioned comprehensive index for the entire book. A flip-book surprise in the index rounds out the collection.
TMF clearly knows how to publish beautiful books that convey a sense of pride and quality. They are books that are joy to hold and study and make you feel good that you own them. From a physical standpoint, there is little to wish for (except perhaps a few ribbons to mark places in such a large text)
Content wise, this tome includes the complete contents of the original, and this is certainly a great thing. However, the material is very eclectic, and although there are a few pieces that can be performed straight out of the book, the majority of the material is what I would classify as bits of business that might be used to great effect by the thinking performer. I do not mean this in a negative way. For example, no less than Michael Skinner used a stratagem described in a mere 3 sentences(attributed to Karrell Fox—pg 332) and turned it into a famous showpiece. There is buried (and not so buried) treasure here waiting to be discovered—but digging and polishing will likely be necessary. Perhaps the greatest role some of these items will play are the sparks of inspiration they provide to stimulate your own creativity. It’s a tribute to Mr. Gardner’s genius and foresight to gather all this material in one place to create this amazing reference. It’s a tribute to Mr. Karr that he has made the material much more readable and searchable. Therefore, with the original material, I am very well pleased.
My feelings are bit less enthusiastic about the supplemental materials. While there is no doubt of the historical value of seeing scans of Mr. Gardner’s original source notes, from a practical perspective, it is lacking. While surely the more puzzle-inclined amongst us will enjoy worrying over whether that mysterious scrawl is referencing a “goat” or a “goatee”, I find it very trying to attempt to decipher the undecipherable. It is ultimately a frustrating experience. I wish that when Mr. Gardner were still with us, someone could have sat down with him to translate his runes so this undoubtedly valuable material could have been presented in a more accessible form. It certainly would have been a monumental task, but what a worthy accomplishment that would have been!
Further, while I realize editorial decisions must be made and there are important forces that influence those decisions of which I am unaware, I am a tad disappointed in the Gardner’s Last Revision section. It seems clear from his introduction and notes that Mr. Gardner intended to fold those corrections and revisions into the main text. Yet, they stand alone, referencing a version of the text that many of us do not own. Sure, with a bit of page flipping, one can mentally insert the corrections in their appropriate sections, but why require the reader to do this? Examples exist where such important revisions can be presented alongside the original text, while still preserving the historical record. (Mike Caveney’s Revelations and Revelation come immediately to mind). At the very least, it would have been nice to have these additional notes presented sans all of the hand written corrections which would have made them all the more useful, while saving a lot of space.
Which brings us to the pachyderm in the flat. Much has been made of the previously advertised, but missing Michael Weber annotations. In addition, in a 2008 Magic Café post quoted the TMF website, stating that the book would include “new impromptu effects by some of today's cleverest magicians, including Mac King and John Carney.” Later in the thread, TMF confirmed the book would contain “material added from current star performers”.
(Ref: http://www.themagiccafe.com/forums/view ... 6&forum=52 ) I was unable to locate any of this proposed material in the current volume.
I understand that big projects inevitably change over time, so I’ll not speculate as to the whys and wherefores of the omissions. I’ll only note that there is little doubt that the proposed additions would have added great value to an already lofty text. I would have gladly given up the color plates, photographs, and essays to make room for those annotations, but I also recognize that others may find more value in the former.
As someone who has never read this book until now, I can see why it is a classic. My mind is reveling in being stimulated just by opening random pages and digging in. It’s also an exquisite pleasure to get to know Mr. Gardner through his work and words. I do feel that to a certain extent, this iteration represents several lost opportunities, as noted above. (In this sense, this book is somewhat similar to the previously-published Castle Notebooks.) I wish time and reality would have allowed TMF to have published their originally proposed vision in all its fullness.
Yet, I am mindful that the perfect is the enemy of the good (or even great) and it is churlish of me to throw any shade on such an terrific treasure. Despite its few shortcomings, I am very glad to have purchased this book. I feel confident that I will return to it again and again. For me, it has definitely been worth the wait and is a bargain at the price. I respect and appreciate Mr. Karr and TMF for their mammoth efforts in making this remarkable resource available once again. In short, I heartily recommend Impromptu to anyone who loves magic, math, mirth, or Martin.
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erdnasephile wrote:One Man’s View of Impromptu by Martin Gardner
The original material in the book has been reproduced, there does not appear to be any additional material included in this section, save the occasional "proof note" from Mr. Gardner.
Mr. Gardner kept a massive file of index cards, pictures, and clippings regarding magic and presumably related subjects. This book presents 75 pages worth of scans of some of this material that concerns magic. The problem is: much of it is virtually unreadable, as it is written in Mr. Gardner’s own hand.
The next section is entitled “Gardner’s Last Revisions.” Mr. Gardner’s corrections, additions, and revisions to the original text that he intended to be included in this volume are reproduced here in their original form. They are typed, but all typos are corrected by hand by Mr. Gardner. They are certainly readable, but they also reference the page numbers of the original text, which do not appear in this current edition. There are some real gems in this section. It seems clear from his introduction and notes that Mr. Gardner intended to fold those corrections and revisions into the main text. Yet, they stand alone,
Thank you very much indeed. I have the Magic Inc. edition, and this review answers all the questions I had.