Interest in Magic History At All-Time High?

Discuss the historical aspects of magic, including memories, or favorite stories.

Postby magicam » 11/28/10 08:25 AM

In an old thread, the question was posed: why the general indifference to magic history? (see http://www.geniimagazine.com/forums/ubb ... 565&page=1). There will always be far more magic performers than magic historians, and of course that's not really a bad thing, as it is the performers themselves who make the history.

On the Editor's Page of the June, 1940 issue of The Sphinx, John Mulholland wrote:

[color:#CC0000]To Paul Rosini, the most interesting and the most valuable articles in The Sphinx are the ones giving biographies of famous magicians. He said that to understand the reasons for a magicians success one must know about the man and his ways. The method is unimportant, said Paul, if you get the effect that is all that is necessary. He believes that he has learned more about putting over an effect from biographies of great magicians than he ever has had from articles, or books, on tricks.[/color]

When you think about it, that's a very powerful and thought-provoking statement from a successful pro. One of today's leading magicians in the world, Ricky Jay, is also a well-respected historian, and in fact he often integrates magic history into his performances. Rosini's comments and Jay's success should be enough to prompt any performer who takes his/her magic seriously amateur or pro to explore and learn about magic history, if only for the purpose of improving performance skills and abilities.

The good news is that there has never been a better time to learn about the rich heritage of our art. In the past few decades, there has been a virtual explosion of historical and biographical books and monographs. Two general magic histories merit mention because they are readily available: Milbourne Christophers The Illustrated History of Magic, and Edwin Dawes' The Great Illusionists. Of course, there are many other worthy historical and biographical titles, but these two classics are wonderful introductions to the history of our art and each can be purchased for $20 or less a bargain.

In addition to obtaining one or both of these titles, magicians should give serious consideration to becoming a member of the Magic Collectors Association. Members of the MCA not only get first priority to attend the annual Collectors Weekend, which compared to most magic conventions is an intimate affair and always has a number of who's who magicians attending and/or lecturing, but they also receive Magicol. Considering the current cost of annual membership ($30 for U.S. members), Magicol borders on being a ridiculous bargain for the money members get 4 issues of Magicol each year, which on average will total between 240 to 280 pages of interesting articles of historical, biographical, bibliographical and collecting interest. There are other benefits to being a member of the MCA, but Magicol alone is worth $50 to $60 per year in my opinion, considering what you get. (Even if Magicol were priced at $60/year which it is not where else would you find the equivalent of a well-produced and illustrated monograph of 60-80 pages for $15?)

Two other periodicals should be mentioned, as they are also wonderful publications. The Yankee Magic Collector is published every other year by the New England Magic Collectors Association and contains a wide variety of articles related to magic history and collecting. Its most recent issue, published earlier this month, is priced at $50 and contains over 200 pages of articles. Gibiciere is published semi-annually by the Conjuring Arts Research Center, and is only sent to members of CARC, a non-profit organization (the MCA and NEMCA are also non-profit organizations). Gibiciere's articles are generally longer and more in-depth than the ones in Magicol or Yankee Magic Collector, and reflect CARC's focus on pre-19th century conjuring history. Annual membership dues for CARC are a minimum of $95 (there are different levels of membership available), and there are many other benefits to membership, including access to portions of the text searchable AskAlexander database.

Here are the website addresses for these organizations:
MCA: http://www.magicana.com/mca/
NEMCA: http://www.nemca.com/
CARC: http://conjuringarts.org/

Now, about the thread title. While the anecdotal evidence suggests that many magicians remain uninterested in magic history, there is still the fact that never before in the history of magic have so many historical books, monographs and periodicals been available to those interested in magic collecting and history. Is it fair to say, then, that the interest in magic history is at an all-time high?
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 11/28/10 12:03 PM

Magicam, perhaps some are conflating the effects of nostalgia for historical interest. I'll believe your thesis as regards the study of history in our craft when a properly annotated version of Expert Card Technique is vetted, published and become a standard reference for the card guys and the Hofzinser works are commonly understood and referenced when new card works are published.

As to the larger market for 'things historical' - agreed - though I do worry it's like the habits of some to buy old books to line their shelves so their library cases look impressive to visitors. A facile rather than scholarly effort to gain perspective on what we have and a vantage to see where we might go.
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Postby magicam » 11/28/10 12:49 PM

Jonathan, I'm not sure what you're saying ^^^, but since I'd like to have a serious dialog about this topic and not get sidetracked with irrelevant or overly-opaque comments, I'll take a stab at deciphering your post.

Yes, perhaps some buy magic history books more for nostalgia than a studious interest in magic history. That's okay I'll take nostalgia over an abject lack of interest in magic history, if it comes down to those two choices.

What do you think my thesis is? I don't think I've expressed a thesis in my post, at least any thesis that is mine. That there's been a huge increase in historical works in the past 25 or so years is a fact, not a thesis.
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Postby houdini's ghost » 11/28/10 12:50 PM

Here's what you do: you subscribe to askalexander.com which is the greatest gift to all persons who are interested in magic history (followed by that series of books from Caveney as a writer and/or publisher) in all the history of the world.
I don't know if Mike's books are on Kalush's incredible database. Must be--everything else is.
All of Eddie Dawes articles, Sam Sharpe's articles, Downs' letters, articles, and books. The Sphinx, Linking Ring, MUM, the Magic Circular, all magic periodicals, give or take--completely indexed
Rosini? Of course. Which Rosini? Doesn't matter--there are volumes on both of them.
Whatever it costs, it's a giveaway. Trying to find something really obscure? Sometimes, it just isn't going to happen, but, the things you turn up on the search!
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Postby Oli Foster » 11/29/10 10:18 AM

I'm interested in magic history and also enjoy old books. I've noticed in my relatively short time of picking things up, within my limited means, that the prices have surged over the last couple of years.

It used to be the case that a second hand book dealer would come across a book on magic and perhaps put it on sale for between 15 and 20 because this kind of price would sell it to the generally interested buyer.

However, now young and old are straight on google, looking at auction prices and finding out the significance of that particular book so that they can sell it to somebody who will pay that price - and, generally speaking, they will get that price for it, because, rather than waiting for the right person to come into their shop, collectors of various means will likewise find that edition on line and pay the going rate.

I personally (and perhaps selfishly) find this a shame as it increasingly puts items I would otherwise love to stumble across outside of my affordability. I suppose it's good for 'the magic economy' for those who can afford it but it does take this chance to discover magic away from the 'generally interested' and serves a perceived elite of old boys with their 'mutual friend' annecdotes at the back of the clubroom.

I must be honest, I can see why younger magicians are put off magic history in this high tec world of dvds etc. The problem with many books on the subject is that they list biography after biography with no sense of progression or social context or any relevance or link at all to developments in the outside world - and a list of random biographies doesn't make for interesting reading in succession - however interesting they may be individually. We might say, "read between the lines" but, as with other subjects, that should be the historian's job.

One book I particularly enjoyed reading that wasn't written by a magician was Performing Dark Arts: A Cultural History of Conjuring by Michael Mangan. The reason I found this interesting was because it did a pretty good job of exemplifying how the image of the magician has evolved throughout the ages.

If anyone half-interested asked me, I'd recommend starting with Steinmeyer's Hiding The Elephant as a great introduction and also Peter Lamont's fantastic book on the Indian Rope trick - which reads like a magic trick in itself!

I'd also say that popular culture reflects an increasing interest in magic history with different studios picking up great magic films like the prestige and the illusionist and broader stuff like the Harry Potter franchise. The conditions are probably quite good for a resurgence of interest - we're still in recession and slightly disillusioned with the modern world around us - just as homeopathic medicine and alternative belief systems continue to grow, I'm sure that magic itself fits into the desire to escape into a bit of olde worlde charm...

Just my tuppence worth..
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 11/29/10 10:41 AM

Oli et al,
re: "The problem with many books on the subject is that they list biography after biography with no sense of progression or social context or any relevance or link at all to developments in the outside world - and a list of random biographies doesn't make for interesting reading in succession - however interesting they may be individually. We might say, "read between the lines" but, as with other subjects, that should be the historian's job."

I agree about that - and take our historians to task for not leaving much room between the li(n)es to read, but some pretty pictures preserved - thanks. That's one of my issues with the archeology that's happening in our craft at the moment. We seem to be lacking an overview and find works like Ottaviani's "Levitation" showing more of our actual human/context history than our internal literature. That strikes me as odd as we do have folks alive today who know about Braue's tape recorder and the way in which some people's works were replicated. There's an interesting few sentences on that matter in Leipzig's autobiography online which might offer insight to those who can read just a little bit between the lines on such things. On this side, a new work on Leipzig is almost as eagerly awaited as the large work on Hofzinser's magic and Kaufman's book on DeLand's magic.

At this point it seems we are far behind the rest - no Toynbee or Durart - perhaps for some conflict about methodology and aversion to discussing the character of the people whose lives included the magic we so much wish to enjoy.

IMHO our literature would not be so much compromised by open discussion of methodology and the provenance of works. I have some thoughts and a fairly well developed plan for how to record the character/personality aspect in a way which permits sharing some insights without compromising the subject today or their memory for future generations. :)
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Postby Dustin Stinett » 11/29/10 01:18 PM

What a crock.

First, to compare Ottavianis Levitation to anything more than a Classics Illustrated version of magic history is being kind. This book is nothing more than the retelling of the work of actual scholars while adding nothing whatsoever to the historic record. (And I do not recall seeing much, if any, credit to those scholars.)

Furthermore, to say that magic histories and/or biographies do not take into account the world in which they are taking place makes me wonder what you and Oli are reading. Even overviews like Christophers Illustrated History of Magic makes reference to world issues. Perhaps not to the level that a textbook used in a school or library reference must (and they must given that histories on war, religion, politics, economy, etc. are all intermingled), but they do to the degree necessary to the subject matter. One simple example is a war (I cannot recall which at the momentFranco-Prussian?) and its impact on Robert-Houdin. And there are countless examples of how the Great Depression (economy), moving pictures, television (pop culture), and the World Wars I and II (and not to forget the Holocaust) had on magic and its practitioners within the pages of the texts on ourin the grand scheme of thingsniche world.

If you are looking for examples of how magic affected the world (what little it can; again, in the grand scheme of things), I can steer you back to the world of film and the references to Georges Mlis and the magicians who were among the first entertainers to feature moving pictures in their entertainments. I can steer you toward optics and how magicians were among the first to study and take advantage of its principles to create their illusions. The links between magic and scienceelectricity, magnetism, telephony, radio, and moreare well known and documented within the texts of our craft. It must be. After all, I didnt learn all this stuff by reading between the lines or from overviews like those penned by Jim Ottaviani.

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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 11/29/10 01:59 PM

Dustin, I disagree with your assesment.

Are you refencing the French-Algerian war of 1856 where JERobert-Houdin used the light-heavy box to impress the locals?

The last few pages of the book Levitation have references and even a recomendataion for Steinmeyer's Hiding the Elephant.

Sad to see you also missed the point about non-magicians writing more and better about our craft across the board. Must be a full crock there. Let it go. :) There's more and better to be had.
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Postby Bill Mullins » 11/29/10 02:06 PM

Dustin said:

"If you are looking for examples of how magic affected the world . . . The links between magic and scienceelectricity, magnetism, telephony, radio, and moreare well known and documented within the texts of our craft."

I think what is documented within the texts of our craft are how some forward thinking magicians have been able to take advantage of the principles of the various sciences and technologies, and use them to create amazing effects. I can find very little of the opposite (with the possible exception of Mlis, Robert-Houdin's activities in Algiers, and perhaps one or two other occasions), where magic has affected much outside of itself.

As an electrical engineer by trade, who is interested in the history of both technology and magic, I think I can confidently state that the advance of "electricity, magnetism, telephony [and] radio" has been historically indifferent to the magical arts and crafts, and to the magicians who have taken advantage of these technologies.

(And for that matter, while Mlis deserves credit as a magician for the advances in "special effects" that he was responsible for, and his background in conjuring certainly informed what he did on the screen, I don't think the long-term history of film would have been much different if he hadn't been a magician, or if he hadn't existed at all. Someone else, someone without a conjuring background, would have developed the same effects -- their time had come.)

As an amateur magician, though, I'd be pleased (and proud) to be convinced otherwise.

I don't disagree at all with the rest of Dustin's post.
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Postby Bill Mullins » 11/29/10 02:13 PM

Another place where magic/magicians _may_ have had an effect on society at large is the skeptic movement, and its antecedents going back to Houdini. But given that the prevalence of local palm readers, fortune tellers, tarot readers & etc, it's not clear that the skeptics have done much good.
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 11/29/10 02:27 PM

Bill, there's not enough of a pre-frontal cortex connection for a skeptical effect to counter or even balance the forces set into motion by the brainstem. The tail does not wag the dog. That's why we have PC and have to walk the long way around magic and it's connections to other aspects of life in society.

BTW, the Conde book is quite readable when it comes to that brain stuff and also magic :).

Has anyone collected/extracted diary references to magic performances over the years? Asking as I recall some surprises when reading back to how Mozart's operas were received in their time.
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Postby Bill Palmer » 11/29/10 04:28 PM

Jonathan:

If you have problems with what is being written on the historical front, i.e. the lack of an annotated version of Expert Card Technique or a complete delineation of the contributions of Hofzinser to the use of gaffed cards in magic, then why don't YOU write the book you are looking for.

Clearly, you have more time on your hands than most of the rest of us. So put it to some good use.
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 11/29/10 04:37 PM

Hi Bill,

I happen to care about and have studied some history. So let's not confuse the works of Toynbee with Samuel Pepys when we've both read and understood Swift in context.

Remember this text? "I have some thoughts and a fairly well developed plan for how to record the character/personality aspect in a way which permits sharing some insights without compromising the subject today or their memory for future generations."

As to the card book(s) - unfortunately I was not an intimate of Vernon or Miller or the others. I believe the Hofzinser project is in Minch's hands and I trust he will do as he sees fit as regards their publication so can't do much on that without presuming upon him.

However, if you have occasion to visit NY and have about 20 minutes to spare over a cup of coffee perhaps you'd like to participate in the project I hinted about above?

Jon
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Postby Dustin Stinett » 11/29/10 05:03 PM

JT: Regarding the war that took place around R-H: no to the Light/Heavy Box reference; this was something different (it had a direct affect on his life and hometown).

And I stand corrected: Ottaviani credited the work of everyone from whom he took his work. But what, besides the artists drawings, did he add to the history of the illusion? (At least people with whom you take issue over certain things have actually contributed something to them versus simply a retelling that which is already told.) And if you believe that book is a better telling of history, then may I recommend these classic (and no doubt better for you) retellings of great works.

Bill: affected is the wrong word. Perhaps I should have used linked to or something of that nature. What I am talking about is how conjurers were at the forefront of using technical applications of the sciences I mentioned; sciences that we take for granted today. But the notion that magic's history books do not incorporate a world view (both give and take) is wrong.

The notion that the long-term history of film would not have been different because someone else would have eventually discovered that which Mlis did can be applied to anything. Certainly someone else would have discovered X-rays had Wilhelm Rntgen not done so. No doubt that the use of radioactive isotopes in cancer treatment would have been discovered by someone other than Madame Curiealong with all the other work she did. Maybe someone else would have discovered the techniques of blood storage by WWIIwhich saved countless livesas Dr. Charles Drew did (maybe; I mean, no doubt it would have been figured out, but maybe not in time for WWII).

We should not dismiss the breakthroughs of others simply because of inevitable discovery.

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Postby Bill Mullins » 11/29/10 05:53 PM

Dustin said: "The notion that the long-term history of film would not have been different because someone else would have eventually discovered that which Mlis did can be applied to anything. Certainly someone else would have discovered X-rays had Wilhelm Rntgen not done so. No doubt that the use of radioactive isotopes in cancer treatment would have been discovered by someone other than Madame Curiealong with all the other work she did. Maybe someone else would have discovered the techniques of blood storage by WWIIwhich saved countless livesas Dr. Charles Drew did (maybe; I mean, no doubt it would have been figured out, but maybe not in time for WWII).

We should not dismiss the breakthroughs of others simply because of inevitable discovery."

I hope my post did not seem dismissive of Mlis -- I didn't intend it to be so, and tried to acknowledge and credit his work.

But the difference between Mlis and Roentgen is that Mlis background in magic was peripheral to his advances in filmmaking (not irrelevant to it, just on the fringe); while Roentgen's background in physics was essential to his work with X-rays.

Erase the magic from Mlis's background, and remove all other influences of magic from cinema in the 1890s to 1910, and the art develops similarly to what we have today. Remove the physics background from Roentgen and remove all physicists from the study of Xrays, and diagnostic medicine would be vastly different.

Charles Drew was a track athlete and football player as well as a doctor. Take away his physical skills (and those of other doctors who developed the field of blood storage), skills that are essentially unrelated to the work he is now known for, and we still have blood banks, transfusions, etc. Take away his medical skills (and those of his colleagues) and the world is different.

I was only trying to emphasize that magic, as a craft, and as embodied by Mlis, wasn't particularly important to the development of cinema (or to any field of endeavor, with the esception of magic itself).
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 11/29/10 07:03 PM

Dustin,

these classic (and no doubt better for you) retellings of great works. would be insulting if anyone here had any doubt that I prefer text and just happen to also read comics. Remember IPV was without any illustrations or photos and RK was the one to ask for photos for the article.

I'm going to return the favor - and remind you of the Gaiman four part (been reprinted into one book) "The Books of Magic" which IMHO does a fine job - and for the more detail inclined there's Alan Moore's "Promethea". You no doubt have translated the Emerald Tablet into what you find personally suitable language and been around the seven steps enough times to make Escher jokes, right?

Perhaps that will help with the human dimension that you want as regards this matter and history. Too much Douglas Adams comes to mind to make an apropos selection, and it's dinner time here.

Now look back at the horse,

Jon
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Postby Dustin Stinett » 11/29/10 07:08 PM

Bill,

Im not convinced thats true. Mlis was first and foremost a magician who saw moving pictures as another form of magic; just as Peppers Ghosts, Phantasmagoria, and other optical illusions were of a magical form of entertainment. Sure, they are now separate, but back then, they were tightly connected kindred artsat least to Mlis.

But thats a whole different subject anyway: My point is that magics historical recordsas captured by magics historians and scholars (versus those who would distil, disseminate, and profit off the work of others) are not at all devoid of cultural context outside of magic as argued by Oli and Jon.

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Postby Bill Mullins » 11/29/10 07:09 PM

To which end of the horse are you referring?
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 11/29/10 07:13 PM

The Old Spice commercial, Bill.

* edit - I agree that Melies was working from a "capture a stage play on film" approach in many of his films.
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Postby Oli Foster » 11/29/10 08:18 PM

Hi, I wasn't trying to overstate the influence or importance of magic and appreciate that generally magic is reacting to popular culture rather than vice versa - but this in itself is interesting and perhaps broader points can be drawn from it - about belief, psychology, science, sociology, politics, religion - anything you like - anything bigger than the sum of its parts - but the fact is that most books do just stick to the parts - and that's what you get - an assortment of parts that are nothing beyond themselves - kind of like alot of magic really (boo hiss!)

You read most magic history books and kind of think, "and...?" Most books, whether history books, novels or art books set out to SAY something - and those books I mentioned do - they're nicely structured and take you on a bit of a trip, coloured by the author's opininons and 'gap filling', drawing toward some kind of point or view or idea.

But this isn't true of all magic books and, as controversial as this may be, I'd include Milbourne Christopher's illustrated history of magic in this, as nicely put-together as it is. I know a guy who will sit in the pub and tell you endless stories and it's the same feeling. The eyes start to glaze over and this is with the best will in the world. Things need to go somewhere and have texture and substance and style or the modern audience (or any audience) just won't be interested and you can't blame them.

That could be it in fact - narrative style and a conclusion - find something interesting to say and relate it evocatively, using the historical facts to ultimately draw readers to reach that same conclusion and maybe find out something about themselves in the process. History shouldn't be objective - it should be highly subjective, as that's the part that makes the data interesting. That's the payoff - a twist - something debatable and interesting and newsworthy - rather than just "and then he died..."

Look at what Kalush and Sloman did with The Secret Life of Houdini - pure, frothy and (some have said) unsubstantiated sensationalism. But that's it - it's sensational - exciting, unputdownable, rather than just another retelling. And that, I think, is the perfect illustration, warts and all.

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Postby Oli Foster » 11/29/10 08:36 PM

One specific point that relates to magic history, is that, although magicians may or not be directly interested in it, can there be any other art or profession that so inherrently revolves around a single freudian archetype? Magicians themselves are always being outmoded and seem to have copied each other from Reginald Scot through to Houdin and now the close up worker that (present company all surely excluded) doesn't seem to have progressed from the 1970s. There just doesn't seem to be the slightest bit of interest in doing things differently from everyone else (again present company surely excluded but certainly from what I've seen at clubs and conventions etc).

Why do we cling to an old established self image and never question it or let it go. Perhaps that's the reason magic has kind of phases on TV - I'm just remembering Paul Daniels etc. Great long running show but the format and style remained the same for like 20 years until it died with the rest of variety tv. Compare that to say, Madonna - and now Lady Gaga - continually reinventing and courting controversy. These things have a lifespan and perhaps this is what history can teach us - to be cool! :) I hope so, in my case...
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 11/29/10 08:50 PM

Thanks Oli - some folks forget the story part of history.
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Postby Dustin Stinett » 11/29/10 11:23 PM

I give up. Im not sure now what Oli is arguing about: Magic as entertainment or magic history as entertainment. If just the latter, then he clearly has not read books like Illusion Show by David Bamberg, the Milo and Roger book by Arthur Milo Brandon, the unbelievable book on Alexander by David Charvet, or his heart-wrenching work on Willard. And then there is the Soo book by Steinmeyer, Fechners books on Robert-Houdin, Spellbound (Doug Henning) by John Harrison, David Bens first volume on the life of Dai Vernon, Caveneys books on Carter and LeRoy, or Stuart Cramers bio of Germain. How about Houdini!!! by Kenneth Silvermana Pulitzer Prize winning author (and he didnt have to rewrite history to make the story interesting)! All of these, and there are more, are great, entertainingand educationalreads. Are there also badly written books? Of course there are. I think thats true wherever you look; not just magic.

And I give up because there is certainly no debating with one who rides his horse on the side he finds that will support whatever view he wants; happily changing as needed. I cannot understand how Jonathan can expect someone (apparently other than himself) to completely vet every word of Expert Card Technique but then appear to be pleased by a book that offers only someone elses work and also happily endorses an example of another book filled with unsubstantiated, sensationalized, revisionist nonsense as a fine story of history.

Enjoy your ride JT.

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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 11/30/10 08:43 AM

Glad you are giving up on this. Really. Must be a horrible strain having that PMs thing as well. No comment about that image of a character chisling itself out of stone?

Time to live in the present Dustin. Perhaps you'd enjoy the Gaiman or Moore works as tours of the craft. It's still a choice one makes. After that - well it takes a while before one learns about the brass ring on the merry-go-round and starts to explore Penrose (or Conde's findings) by way of Escher, or perhaps discovers the similartiy between Borges book of sand and certain online resources.

:)

However, reading is fundamental and when "unfortunately I was not an intimate of Vernon or Miller or the others." does not suffice to inform you that I already know I am not in a position to vet ECT... sigh. Not to worry, Dr Seuss can get you started and Toynbee will be there waiting with Chomsky and Eco whenever you get around to exploring that region of Abracadabra (<- see book four of the Gaiman work for that reference). In the mean time I may look up the history about war and J.E.R-H's town - but since he's dead and his works largely out of context - just does not seem a tempting bait IMHO.

Have you been to MA to visit Lexington?
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Postby magicam » 11/30/10 08:54 AM

^^^ What does Gaiman's book have to do with our craft? You do realize that his comic book mini-series is fantasy and that it has absolutely nothing to do with legerdemain or the history of legerdemain, don't you? You keep mentioning all these real magic stories (Harry Potter, Gaiman's story(ies), etc.) like they're relevant to our kind of magic. If you think they are, please explain their relevance to us. If not, I suspect the vast majority of people on this board would be very grateful if you'd leave Harry Potter et al. to the kids and fantasy websites and boards.

Has anyone addressed the primary question in the original post? LOL That's okay it's the nature of the beast on internet boards. At least an interesting dialog has resulted (aside from the complete irrelevance of a few posts by one member). Here are some random thoughts on some of the posts.

Oli: I don't know how old you are or how long you've been interested in magic, but I would disagree with your assessment of the market in conjuring books. I think nearly all magic dealers and collectors would agree that prices have slumped appreciably over the past few years. For example, ask George Daily what he's seen in the demand for old magic magazines. Of course, one can find exceptions to this for certain titles and sub-genres of magic, but the recent trend is clear enough: prices for magic collectibles have dropped in the past few years. In fact, I'd argue that there has never been a better time to buy collectibles in our generation.

I'd also disagree with your assessment about how general, second-hand book dealers price(d) magic books. For the most part, in my experience these dealers tend to grossly overprice magic books. And like anything else, there are, and will always be, exceptions to this general rule if one is diligent and well-informed, there are bargains to be had from such dealers.

Regarding people googling to learn the significance of a magic book, I wish that were true. In my opinion, far too few magicians google to learn the significance of an old magic book, unless by significance you mean market value. But I think those are two very different concepts.

Concerning your lament about the affordability of old magic books, I'm afraid I have to disagree with you there as well. In my opinion, it's never been less expensive to access the information in old, out of print magic books, at least those which are in the public domain. Why? Because of the explosion of on-demand printing. Whereas in the past a student would have to purchase an original copy of an old book, nowadays he/she can purchase a very cheap digital reprint. Now if you're talking about the affordability of early editions of magic books, yes, those are more expensive, but if one is seriously interested in content, then digital reprints work just fine.

You make an interesting point about the lack of context in magic histories, and IMO there is some validity to this point. But I wonder if that's actually the reason why younger magicians find such histories uninteresting. In my opinion, the biggest reason is that younger magicians simply do not see how acquiring historical knowledge is relevant to them. This is unfortunate, because in fact the study of magic history can help magicians improve as performers. There's an old saying, when I want something new, I read an old book, and veteran magicians will readily testify to the fact that they have fooled the pants off fellow magicians by using an old trick/method.

You cite Performing Dark Arts as an example of a history that you enjoyed. As you note, author Michael Mangan is not a magician, and he is also not, in the strict sense of the term, a magic historian. I read the book and found it sometimes to be a rather confusing jumble of theory and history, with incompletely developed concepts, not to mention that it was somewhat poorly edited. And unfortunately, Mangan also mangled some of his history and got several things wrong, either in terms of factual statements or his interpretations of certain events in magic history.

For those who want to read about magic history which integrates social history, etc., there are plenty of books which attempt to do this, most of them by academics who are not magic historians per se. Performing Dark Arts is one example, and other examples are Phil Butterworth's Magic on the Early English Stage, Francesca Coppa's (et al.) Performing Magic on the Western Stage, and Simon During's Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic. And those familiar with Eddie Dawes' historical works will readily agree that Eddie does a good job of placing conjuring history in a greater historical context, with the added benefit that Eddie IS a conjuring historian and knows his subject matter intimately.

I can certainly appreciate the desire to see magic history presented in an interesting fashion, but I think that with the proper treatment, magic history is plenty fascinating on its own without the need to fictionalize or sensationalize it. The Secret Life of Houdini was an entertaining and well-written book, and the authors were candid about their approach to writing it and the fact that they fictionalized some of their accounts. For me, one potential drawback about such an approach is that it isn't always easy for the magic history student to readily discern the facts from the fiction (although, to be fair, it should be said that with the publication of the authors' wonderful and extensive source notes, the dedicated reader can, with some digging, almost always get any such fact or fiction? questions adequately answered and sorted out).

Re your comment, History shouldn't be objective it should be highly subjective, as that's the part that makes the data interesting. That's the payoff - a twist - something debatable and interesting and newsworthy - rather than just 'and then he died...,' I have mixed feelings about it. Some historians would argue that anything beyond the bare skeleton of history must perforce be subjective, if only because its interpretation is subject to the biases conscious or otherwise of the writer. But again, I don't subscribe to the notion that objective history is necessarily boring or uninteresting and that it must be somehow gimmicked to make it interesting. In the hands of certain writers, objective history can be very interesting indeed and needs no twist or something debatable, etc. Of course, if a writer has a certain point of view that he/she wants to express or advocate, there's nothing wrong with that, so long as it's clear to the reader which parts of the history are opinion and which parts are fact. In other words, putting a spin on history is fine so long as the reader is clearly told about the spin.

Jonathan: I wrote a review of Jim Ottaviani and Janine Johnston's Levitation, and in connection with your comment about bringing history to life, I offered this praise about Levitation: And the characters, well, they have character: the principled Maskelyne, the bulldog Kellar, the vain Thurston, and the unvarnished realist that is Jarrett. Yes, the text and cartoon illustrations made these people very human indeed. But Levitation was written for the general public, and really, it's clear that the creators of this book were just having some good, clean fun. This booklet was not serious history, nor, to the extent it was history, was it really that accurate, and I think that was one of Dustin's key points. In any case, I would strongly disagree with the notion that a booklet like Levitation is the ideal, or even preferable, way to present conjuring history. It has its place, to be sure, and for what it was, I thought it was extremely well done. But as a legit historical text? An emphatic no.

You mention that you have some thoughts and a fairly well developed plan for how to record the character/personality aspect in a way which permits sharing some insights without compromising the subject today or their memory for future generations. Why don't you share that with us? And if you don't want to do that, then I'd encourage you to make a contribution by implementing your idea. And you can do these things in manageable pieces, too. There's no rule that says one has to make a big or profound contribution. I've always seen the development of magic history as an accretive process, and regard any contribution, however small, as a most welcomed one.

Bill M.: You wrote: I was only trying to emphasize that magic, as a craft, and as embodied by Mlis, wasn't particularly important to the development of cinema (or to any field of endeavor, with the [exception] of magic itself). If I had to lay odds, I'd bet that you're probably correct in that assessment. But we will never know for sure. One thing we do know. Magicians as a group were the earliest adopters of the new cinematic technology for commercial purposes (at least they were in the U.K.), and surely that counts for something.

It's very difficult to assess the inevitability of certain things and historical developments. I think history is, out of practical necessity, usually treated conceptually in a very macro way. It would not be manageable to do otherwise, given the billions of human interactions and activities that have occurred on an individual level. So historians usually have to deal with significant periods of history in very broad terms, and deal with cause and effect in a broad fashion. This relates to your question about whether or not Houdini's efforts at exposing fraudulent spiritualists. As you point out, in the long run he may have made little difference, but I suspect that if we knew the stories of individuals and their families, we'd find many cases where a family member attended Houdini's lecture and because of that avoided being suckered by a medium, and in the more extreme cases avoided losing all of the family's money to these mediums. So in a micro sense, I'd bet that Houdini's lectures had a profound effect at that individual level, and meant the difference between a family being mired in poverty for generations to come versus realizing the American dream. Another example would be Scot and his Discoverie of Witchcraft. In the macro, broad sweep of history, his book didn't stop innocents from being burned, but I'd guess that on a micro level, some lives were spared because of his book.

As an aside, in terms of how history has played out, when it comes to the influence(s) exercised by an individual or group, IMHO it's not the concept of inevitability that is important, but the timing of certain inventions, innovations and events. The development of atomic energy may have been inevitable, but what result with WW II and subsequent world history had the atomic bomb not been developed when it was developed? Etc.
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Postby Oli Foster » 11/30/10 10:13 AM

Some interesting, detailed posts here - particularly the question on free will vs determinism - seems to be a broader philosophical point to work out there.

Magicam, re old books, I was talking about prices for original editions. Agreed that online resources like the learned pig, google books and project gutenburg are fantastic for free content, along with Dover etc reprinting alot of the more popular old books.

When I was younger, my dad happened to stumble across a nice edition of Sachs's sleight of hand and that's how my interest developed. Using that as an example, generally you're not going to buy anything for interest's sake these days because a dealer will price it for a specific market so the casually interested don't get a look in.

On the same example, Dover do a facsimile which you might find cheaply in the magic section of a larger bookstore or order online but it's the aspect of 'looking' for these things rather than discovering them by chance and getting abit of a bargain that might have an effect on getting new people hooked via this channel.

So, what I've noticed is if you get a call from a dealer who's put something aside for you, they've now already found out what edition it is and looked up hown much that edition sells for, so you're not generally going to get a bargain. Whereas, with my tiny income, I would walk out with a handful of cheap books with the occasional gem, it's now one or two "gems" a year, because these same small traders squeeze me into the same bracket as the people who will pay that much for them. This isn't necessarily a bad thing overall and is certainly a good thing for bookshops but, as a punter of limited means, it's not necessarily a good thing for me - but then perhaps I shouldn't be so materialistic as to crave first editions anyway.

I might have been abit over-enthused with my post on what history should and shouldn't be but to try to put it this way: If I was to write a broader history on say, the USA, I might start with an overview of native americans, move on to pilgrim settlers through civil wars and independence, successive governments and obama. It would be a sleep-inducing read. You'd read it and think "How's that different from the history of the UK or Russia or Latvia?! - Why do I care?!" And that's it really - a lack of reasons for magicians and everyone else to care.

My history of the USA would have to have some kind of point to glue it all together and determine what to include and what not to include. For example, I might be looking at the rise of capitalism, ideals of autocracy, policical shennanigans or masonic conspiracy - any of these backbones would make for a better book.

With magic, we, who are already interested, tend to think that the facts are interesting enough but, what they're not, to somebody who isn't already interested, is at all relevant or compelling. I think the solution is partly already there - books like those by Steinmeyer that make interesting reading for everyone.
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 11/30/10 10:54 AM

Thanks for asking Magicam.

Let us presume one would like to begin some serious study or perhaps even activity in the craft of performing magic. Turning then to "our father who wrote in French" - we find very direct advice toward our objective - to be an actor playing the part of a wizard.

It then behooves the student to learn sufficiently about both what a wizard is supposed to be and enough about the theatrical arts in order to convey what they will to audiences. Fortunately Scot left the way open to openly seek the assistance of directors and producers so one can get assistance with props, cues, lighting and script and make those tape marks where they count - but wizardry...?

But just what is a wizard? Going back though literature, history and then forward via folks like Joseph Campbell it's no bother to find that nice story about the guy carrying a basket on a train or the line in Tarbell about a wish for a ham sandwich. One is well advised to leave off the early applications of deceit and confabulations as applied to management methods and tame those technologies toward smaller goals. No wolves please, but it's okay to paint a horse like a zebra if it suits.

Sorry, no BS here, just Bullfinch. No Confabulation required when Crowley made his basic premise plain at the start of Magic Without Tears. Magic is the how behind the because.

So wasn't it useful of Gaiman and Moore to show us a history of magic that comes from our archaeological (actual) past and then Rowling and others to suggest fictions which we might use as readymade backdrops for our presented amusements? Gaiman and Moore took the trouble to collect the fictional magic-users in the readily available familiar literature of this generation and use them to help illustrate a tale that gives a tour of magic to a potential student. The hero's tale if you recall Joseph Campbell. It just happens that none of them worked in a vacuum and so Borges, Lovecraft, Poe, Jung and that long line of literary explorers get their nods as well.

[grouse]
Believe it or not, a muggle asked me if our literature on finding cards and hiding coins was designed as lingua franca - a way to permit technological exchange - as we could not be so petty and shortsighted as to actually fret over finding a card from a pack of cards, could we? Yes, that from a real person, a member of that group who occasionally grants us their audience. From the theater ... well the reports I've gotten to date have us seen much as we might see the character "rainman" from that film - limited and very prone to inappropriate behavior/action.
[/end grouse]
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Reason: minor typos - the insanity remains.
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Postby Ted M » 11/30/10 10:56 AM

While the Ottaviani/Johnston "Levitation" graphic novel may not be valued by Dustin, I'd suggest it is valuable to the field in an ambassadorial way, as a gateway work. It speaks to audiences not being reached by regular textual magic histories, and can coax them down the path for more.

Widening the circle is important work.
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Postby Bill Mullins » 12/09/10 12:27 AM

The current issue of The Linking Ring has an article by Matthew Solomon called "Magic & Moving Pictures", which is apparently an excerpt from his new book Dissappearing Tricks: Silent Film, Houdini, and the New Magic of the Twentieth Century. It's very relevant to some of what's been discussed in this thread.
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 12/09/10 10:42 AM

That guy gets around theater journals too. At a guess, he's discovered the story of Gertie the Dinosaur as well. IMHO that item and the lack of market for Gertie II run parellel to the experiences of many other performing wonder workers.
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Postby JohnCox » 12/09/10 03:03 PM

Dissappearing Tricks: Silent Film, Houdini, and the New Magic of the Twentieth Century is a superb book. I wrote up a review (of sorts) discussing some of the revelations about Houdini's film work it contained. If interested: Houdini Defeats Hackenschmidt and other revelations
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Postby Bill Mullins » 12/14/10 06:44 PM

Another magician with early ties to film is Albert E. Smith (vaudeville and lyceums in the 1890s), who teamed up with Stuart Brockton for a stage act, and then went on to found American Vitagraph studios.

HERE is an early film of Brockton, performing (using film special effects) what is essentially a magic trick compare it to Kevin James production of a bowling ball.
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Postby Jim Maloney » 12/14/10 07:57 PM

FYI: It's "Blackton".

They are also noted for filming Nate Leipzig performing a number of manipulations, a portion of which (the coin roll), he used in his stage act in the early days.
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