Best History of Magic

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

Postby Oli Foster » 11/08/12 08:30 AM

Hi,

Thought I'd start a thread on this, as I've really enjoyed a couple of individual books and wondered if you have any suggestions on must-reads.

One thing I've found is that quite a few books seem to focus on the details of individual performers, without providing much narrative in the way of how we came from A to B, cultural influences etc. One I really liked was Practicing Dark Arts, A Cultural History of Conjuring, which provides a broader context, albeit less richly detailed than others. Occasionally I see the odd out of print volume for relatively high prices so would be interested in which of these, along with any current books, is your favourite and why?

Cheers

Oli
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Postby Ted M » 11/08/12 12:33 PM

Since you're coming at this from a particular angle (the book you mention is published by an academic press) and you say you've enjoyed a couple books, could you give us a little more to go on -- another book or two that worked for you, and a couple that didn't?
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 11/08/12 01:27 PM

This book? Performing Dark Arts a Cultural History of Conjuring by Mangan

What are you seeking and what (citations / urls please) have you used to base your current perspective on the matter?

IMHO The underlying "Faust" responsibility and cultural normative issues have not changed in hundreds of years, even if you are in marketing and discussing branding or identity politics.
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Postby Oli Foster » 11/08/12 03:54 PM

That's the one and that's my point really. I enjoyed this one as I felt the external view on magic and the premise for the book (linking the developing persona of the magician with other popular culture) provided a narrative that was more readable for being more sparse on specific details.

I've enjoyed other public-slanted 'bookstore' histories for similar reasons, like Jim Steinmeyer's fantastic Art and Artifice, Hiding the Elephant and The Glorious Deception, as well as similar books by non-magicians, like Peter Lamont's Rise of The Indidan Rope Trick and The First Psychic. All feature a more 'authory', entertaining, essay-like voice rather than just a chronology of performers. One that I haven't got on with, whilst I admire the fantastic achievement and value as a reference, is Milbourne Christopher's Illustrated History of Magic. Although I found it interesting to read the little bios of various performers in chunks, there just didn't seem to be any underlying point to the book other than a reference - and my fear is that more pricey and more beautiful books might leave me just as cold (please do shoot me down in flames for what is a very slanted personal opinion - my interest being an equal mix of entertainment and information)What do you think of the Taschen book? Looks beautiful with impressive contributors - worth the price?

I've enjoyed reading darker 'olde' books that include magic and Demonology, like Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft, James 1st's Daemonology, Guazzo's Compendium Maleficarum and Sprenger and Kramer's Malleus Maleficarum. Only marginally related and slightly sinister but that period seems fascinating in terms of the whole social construction of witchcraft as well as what's lasted in popular culture.

I've also enjoyed reading biographies of victorian/vaudeville magicians (particularly the annecdotes in their autobiographies, my favourites being Memoirs of Robert Houdin [and his others: surprisingly, Card Sharping [who would have thought that would be entertaining!], Secrets of Conjuring and Magic and Stage Conjuring], Adventures in Many Lands by Julius Zancig and My Magic Life by David Devant)I guess simplistically, it's again for their story-like quality and the blurring of biography and their own PR, the overall enigma being more than the sum of it's seemingly impressive parts.

However, I've so far just stumbled across a few books that seemed interesting to me rather than set out to study a particular or general area and am aware there are gaping holes in general knowledge and enjoyment. To narrow it down then, what I'd particularly like is:

- an entertaining and broad ranging history with some kind of external 'oomph behind it'. If you had to recommend one book that would do the best job of summing up everything that preceded you, what would it be?

- original books that betray a certain slant, perhaps as informative as their subject matter. Again, more random, the better.

- Early books or reprints that are interesting for a direct or indirect link with magic

- Your favourite book for your own personal reasons, without reference to the above. Wisdom of the crowd will find me a present (unfortunately not also extending to paying for it)...

Cheers

Oli
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 11/08/12 04:27 PM

If it helps, the word is "old" and pronounced that way even though spelling was unstable till a couple of generations after the printing press (and then via market appeal to folks who can't pronounce the French word "forte"). I really hope this is not a "please help me with my high school paper on the history of magic" plea.

Have you already found Deaver's "Vanished Man" and older works often cited including "Nightmare Alley" and the esoteric books that are on the shelves of your local library including "Morning of the Magicians"?

Currently Charles Stross is among the writers who've adopted magic as a theme in some of their stories. The other side, the "what we believe and how that comes to be" has been adopted by folks including Greg Egan, Peter Watts and Alistair Reynolds. The cartoon tuxedo wearing performer had become iconic and IMHO serves as acceptable transition to allegory by way of absurd performances. The distinction and limitation of our craft versus something closer to theater of the absurd or that older French experimental theater that explored shock value is the stricture on reassuring and greater legal/personal/immediate liabilities faced when doing what conmen, spiritualists and others have been found doing...

What does it mean to practice magic in a culture that insists it's all about someone else's plan? What does our craft look like in other cultures? Noticing those things might make your search for knowledge move enriching.
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Postby Oli Foster » 11/08/12 04:36 PM

Ah, but is your "old" my "old"? :) Perhaps not, if I'm that much closer to high school in my youthful ignorance ;) And how could we know the middle English pronunciation without standardised spelling?...

Haven't read those books. Why do you like them?
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 11/08/12 04:42 PM

The Vanished Man - a fun detective story with more than one magician and some discussion of applied magic as considered by a layman writer.

Nightmare Alley - life with mind readers and a magician who performed in the carnival.

Morning of the Magicians - exploring what accounts of encounters with magicians over the ages might imply if taken seriously.

Such are books that beginners can find and might do well to read early on before unproductive habits in thinking and practice settle in.

The other works - exploring what we mean by magic and what permits us to perceive magic as something other than contrived pranks and cons - the cultural and cognitive machinery that has to be in place for there to be magic.

Angelo Lewis translated the Robert-Houdin books. You might find them informative. Nieve's Merry Companion is around and that's a fine "olde" book that puts our craft in context. Getting more historical we are left at an impasse as that which gives conviction and fosters/enforces belief is not so distinct from what conmen do... out of safe territory.
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Postby Ted M » 11/09/12 12:17 PM

I haven't yet found the kind of large-scale magic history you're asking for. Broad-scope magic histories tend to be quilts, assembled from discrete panels of individual performers, rather than woven tapestries with threads winding back and forth between component images to create a larger design.

Hiding The Elephant is the closest I've found to the tapestry model. Instead of being organized around a single performer, the book brilliantly focused on the concept of mirror illusions which obsessed many magicians, who interacted in their pursuit of it. Interaction between magicians turns out to involve nearly as much deceit as their stage performances, and is fascinating stuff. I wish more authors would consider this book as a model.

From the books you've named and the explanations you've provided, here are some you may enjoy:

Jim Steinmeyer, The Last Greatest Magician In The World
A bio of Howard Thurston, who interacts with Houdini, Kellar, Okito and others. Well shaped, strong narrative thrust, vivid characters. Well grounded and connected to the larger tapestry. Inexpensive, too. Steinmeyer is a must-read.

David Bamberg, Illusion Show
An autobiography of Okito's son, who eventually launches his own grand show and settles into South/Central America as his territory. Strong voice, great insights, telling details, many fascinating interactions with other magicians. I'm reading this right after the Thurston bio, and the overlap due to Okito makes this extra interesting. The storytelling here is jumpy and the focus is bounded by its author's experience, but it's a great ride, and it seems to be a pretty honest one.

Arthur Brandon, Milo & Roger
Warm, rich autobiography of a lesser known magician. So very, very human. Overlooked by many, but one of my favorites. Delicious. I see used copies available right now for under $15.

David Ben, Dai Vernon: A Biography--Artist - Magician - Muse (Vol. 1: 1894-1941)
Vernon is the focus of course, but many other magicians spring to life in these pages too: the NYC Inner Circle subculture of the 1920s and 30s is vivid, and the jealous T. Nelson Downs is an unforgettable character. Very, very different from the stories of stage performers. Extremely well researched and well written.

Lamar Keene, The Psychic Mafia
Utterly fascinating expose of exploitative spiritualist camps in the second half of the 20th century by a medium who left the racket.

Barry Wiley, The Indescribable Phenomenon
Well researched and well told biography of Anna Eva Fay, superstar medium of the nineteenth century. Well situated in its historical context. As you enjoyed Lamont's The First Psychic, I expect you'll enjoy this one too.

Kenneth Silverman, Houdini!!!
I think the storytelling bogs down a bit, and I'm personally burned out on Houdini. But it's considered the best researched book on him and it historicizes Houdini within the culture of his time, so it makes some of the connections outside of magic which you value.
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Postby P.T. Murphy » 11/11/12 11:51 PM

Ted M- What a great list!

I would add "Words About Wizards", published by Meyer Books (David Meyer), the gent that brought us "Illusion Show".
"Those who do not believe in magic
will never find it. " -Roald Dahl
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Postby Andrew Pinard » 11/12/12 11:23 AM

I had the honor of hosting a round-table discussion on "Capturing Magic" at The Yankee Gathering last Thursday night. We had a group of almost 40 people show up at midnight to spend an hour discussing the methods magic history writers use to share their passion and knowledge with their readers.

The number of authors in the room (Barry Wiley, Gabe Fajuri, Phil Schwartz, Arthur Moses and others) helped to ground the discussion not only in the process, but also the importance of developing up-and-coming authors to share our craft not only with magicians but with the world at large.

Some topics discussed included: research tools, finding a reliable editor, market forces, the important of context, rounding out details to present a whole picture, publishers, the importance of capturing recent history, suggested writers to study and emulate, the writing process, and when to step away from the research and begin writing.

The dedicated magic history journals: Magicol, Gibicire, and The Yankee Collector all offer writers an opportunity to present their research and passion in shorter article-length format and provide a stepping off point to possible longer works. All of the broader magic journals also have room for this type of writing as well.

I feel it is important to support newer writers in the process and expand our influence to the public at large.

My absolute favorite titles have already been mentioned (Illusion Show, Milo & Roger and The Last Greatest...), but other titles include: Goodnight Mr. Dante by Val Andrews, Spellbound by John Harrison, The Life and Times of Augustus Rapp by Augustus Rapp and My Magic Husband: Howard Thurston Unmasked by Grace Thurston. All have their flaws (some in sheer hyperbole), but each provide and elucidate the place of the performer in the context of the world they inhabit. Another great source is any of the history books produced by Mike Caveney's Magic Words. I cannot say enough positive things about the quality of the writing, editing and production on their titles (http://mcmagicwords.com/).

One other title that was mentioned at our talk was the Glen David Gold book Carter Beats the Devil that, while containing aspects of magic history, blurs the line in a way that intrigues and entertains but must not be confused with legitimate magic history. There is a definite place for historical fiction but one hopes that it is kept to a minimum in the "scholarly" books.
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Postby magicam » 12/10/12 05:52 AM

Oli Foster wrote:One thing I've found is that quite a few books seem to focus on the details of individual performers, without providing much narrative in the way of how we came from A to B, cultural influences etc. One I really liked was Practicing Dark Arts, A Cultural History of Conjuring, which provides a broader context, albeit less richly detailed than others.


The place of magic in the broader context of culture has been addressed in numerous books and monographs, albeit not (to my knowledge) in a detailed, comprehensive manner which is primarily focused on magic as we know it.

The title of the book is actually Performing Dark Arts: A Cultural History of Conjuring, written by Michael Mangan, a professor specializing in theater and the cultural history of theater. I found his book to be largely unsatisfying in relation to its title, and think it might have been more prudently titled Performing Dark Arts: Some Cultural Theories of Conjuring.

While Professor Mangan may be very knowledgeable in certain areas of history, his writing reflects what I believe to be a general flaw in books by academic writers which purport to provide cultural meaning to our art: he is demonstrably not a conjuring historian, and thus ends up garbling and misinterpreting facts and thereby shows his ignorance of our culture, among other things. I am mystified how anyone can one purport to write a cultural history of conjuring without first immersing himself in the culture of his/her very topic.
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 12/10/12 11:39 AM

magicam wrote:[... I am mystified how anyone can one purport to write a cultural history of conjuring without first immersing himself in the culture of his/her very topic.


Is it any less mystifying how folks purport to be a magicians ...for those very same reasons?

Self deception is not quite the same as magical thinking.
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