^^^ 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.