How Magicians Think by Joshua Jay

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How Magicians Think by Joshua Jay

Review by Michael Close

[Full disclosure: I offered editorial suggestions on an earlier version of this book.]

Joshua Jay is well known to magicians as a lecturer, performer, magazine columnist, and magic dealer. He has written several books for the general public, including Magic – The Complete Course, Big Magic for Little Hands, and Joshua Jay’s Amazing Book of Cards. These are books of instruction, geared toward aspiring, beginning magicians. His newest book, How Magicians Think: Misdirection, Deception, and Why Magic Matters has a different goal and is aimed toward a different audience: those who enjoy the performance of magic as a spectator sport. In his Introduction, he writes:

“My hope is that after reading How Magicians Think, you’ll watch magic shows differently – not less critically, but in a more enlightened way. Too many of us watch magic shows to figure out how the tricks are done. As you’ll learn, that mindset is a trap. While you’re busy trying to find the solution to an illusion, you miss what is in plain sight: artistry. You miss the staging of the illusion, the carefully considered script, and a perfectly timed observation that distracts your mind or makes you laugh. You ignore the aesthetics of the show, the grace with which the objects appear and disappear, and the way the lighting, the costumes, and the props are thematically linked. You fail to grasp the metaphor of what the magician is doing and the interplay between their work and what’s going on in the world around them. Magic tricks aren’t puzzles, but most of us see them that way.

“At its very best, magic reminds us of the thrill of the unknown. Many of the performing arts can take our breath away, but only magic makes you question whether you saw what you just saw. Most other performing arts are about understanding and experience. Magic puts front and center what we don’t understand, so we can marvel at the mystery.

“People often conflate being fooled with feeling foolish. I want to help people see that although being fooled is magic’s baseline for success, it can be – and ought to be – much more. Magicians do things beyond our comprehension. When done well, those things should instill in us a unique cocktail of feelings that no other performing art can deliver: escape, awe, and – in the best cases – pure wonder.”

How Magicians Think can be most easily categorized as a “magic appreciation” book. Such books exist for every aspect of artistic endeavour. A cursory search on Amazon turned up the following: What to Listen for in Music by Aaron Copland, The Joy of Art by Carolyn Schlam, Dance Appreciation by Amanda Clark and Sara Pecina, The Art of Watching Films by Dennis Petrie and Joe Boggs, and Understanding Jazz by Tom Piazza and Wynton Marsalis. The function of these books is explained by William Schuman in the Introduction to What to Listen for in Music:

“For the innocent music lover it must seem strange indeed to read a how-to book on the subject of listening to music. Since when are there problems in listening to music? Music is there to be enjoyed. Why should one have to learn or need guidance on how to listen to what one is hearing? And why would one of our great composers take time from composing to write a primer on music? The answer is simple. Listening to music is a skill that is acquired through experience and learning. Knowledge enhances enjoyment.”

Classical music, jazz, dance, photography, painting, sculpture, film making, and a host of other artistic creative fields are deep and complex. The more the enthusiast understands about them, the greater the appreciation of both the art and the artist. With How Magicians Think, Josh Jay attempts to provide a similar level of enlightenment to magic show audiences. However, there is an inherent challenge, and it’s a big one.

If you want to understand how jazz works, you can go as deep down the rabbit hole as you want – learning about chord functions, song forms, scales, the evolution of harmonic and melodic complexity, and the history of jazz styles and the related major players. None of that information is going to diminish your appreciation of jazz, because none of it is a secret. Of all the arts (and, for the moment, let’s consider conjuring to be an art form), only magic strives to convince an audience of the veracity of a deceptive experience. In order to do this, magicians must distort the facts, and the methods to accomplish this distortion have to be withheld from our spectators. If those methods are revealed, the deception vanishes.

If you have been in magic for any length of time, you understand the implications of gaining knowledge of the techniques and principles of conjuring: with experience, we have fewer and fewer opportunities to experience the moments of astonishment that “hooked” us at the beginning. We may appreciate the theatricality, emotion, and technical expertise of a particular performer, but if we’re not “fooled,” we lose magic’s unique factor.

This, then, is the challenge Joshua Jay faced when writing How Magicians Think: how do you educate without eliminating magic’s ability to create wonder? Fortunately, Josh has walked this tightrope adroitly; he illuminates how (the best) magicians approach their art/craft without revealing secrets. And bravo to that.

How Magicians Think contains fifty-two chapters; each chapter answers a question a layman has asked Josh over the past years. Examples are: What does it Feel Like to Perform Magic, How do you Create Magic, How Often do Magicians Practice, Why is Magic so Male-dominated, What Role do Words Play in Magic, Do Magicians Get Fooled, What’s the Next Big Thing in Magic, and a two-part chapter, Why Magic. Josh also discusses his favorite magicians, including Jerry Andrus, Rune Klan, Richard Turner, Rene Lavand, Ricky Jay, Simon Aronson, Jeff McBride, Derren Brown, Rob Zebrecky, David Williamson, Tommy Wonder, and Juan Tamariz.

Obviously, the answers to these questions reflect Josh’s opinions and life experiences; I think most good magicians around the world would agree with them. Mixed in are a substantial amount of magic history, plus information on magicians whose names are more familiar to the public: David Copperfield, David Blaine, and Penn & Teller. And, as I mentioned earlier, Josh does all this without exposing secrets.

How Magicians Think is an excellent resource to suggest to laymen who are fans of magic. Rather than steering them to a beginner magic text (which might only produce a layman who knows too much), this book provides a sense of what goes on in the world of magic and what the best magicians think about when they prepare their tricks, routines, and shows. While it is not geared toward magicians, you might find it useful as a guide to answering questions your audience may ask you. Recommended.

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