The Secret History of Magic by Peter Lamont & Jim Steinmeyer
If you read a standard history of magic, you learn that it begins in ancient Egypt, with the resurrection of a goose in front of the Pharaoh. You discover how magicians were tortured and killed during the age of witchcraft. You are told how conjuring tricks were used to quell rebellious colonial natives. The history of magic is full of such stories, which turn out not to be true. Behind the smoke and mirrors, however, lies the real story of magic.
It is a history of people from humble roots, who made and lost fortunes, and who deceived kings and queens. In order to survive, they concealed many secrets, yet they revealed some and they stole others. They engaged in deception, exposure, and betrayal, in a quest to make the impossible happen. They managed to survive in a world in which a series of technological wonders appeared, which previous generations would have considered magical. Even today, when we now take the most sophisticated technology for granted, we can still be astonished by tricks that were performed hundreds of years ago.
The Secret History of Magic reveals how this was done. It is about why magic matters in a world that no longer seems to have a place for it, but which desperately needs a sense of wonder. (via Goodreads)
Why was I interested in this book?
Peter Lamont and Jim Steinmeyer are two of my favorite magic writers, and the history of magic is one of my favorite subjects.
Magicians are liars. Most magicians are okay with that epithet. Likewise, the stories and histories they relate are filled with embellishments and fabrications and are prone to a certain amount of revision when it suites a narrative. Did people in the Ye Olde Olden Days really believe that magicians had supernatural powers? Probably not. But did it become convenient for magicians to wink at a contemporary audience and say, “But you all are too sophisticated to believe that nonsense”? Well, it doesn’t hurt to flatter an audience that might not give you the benefit of a doubt.
The Secret History of Magic drills down past some of these not-entirely-true stories to highlight the performers who perfected their craft and worked hard for their notoriety or, at least, their living. This book is light on the secrets behind tricks, but doesn’t shy away from a little exposure when needed. But those types of secrets aren’t really what this book is about. Instead, Secret History about how magic has changed with the times while not really changing much at all.
What Didn’t Work
There is a lot of repetition of certain ideas in close proximity to each other. If a concept were presented at the beginning of a chapter and is then perhaps reiterated at the end of the chapter, that’s one thing. If the idea is presented at the beginning of a paragraph and the end of the same paragraph and then maybe again a paragraph later, repetition may be a problem. And this isn’t done once for emphasis, it happens over and over. Sometimes it felt like similar, independent articles had been imperfectly stitched together. I don’t know whether this was due to the collaboration, but some of the more directly historical sections were smoother.
I’m also not sure I’d suggest this as a “beginner” text. While someone like Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin is given ample page space (because his “memoir” is one of the core “histories” of the profession), many other magicians are mentioned by name only, possibly relying on knowledge of them that the reader may or may not have. I don’t think this is the magic history book for someone who has only heard of Houdini.
Regardless, I enjoyed this book. I’ve been thinking about magicians and their histrories, their versions of their truths, for some time on my own. As a writer, it’s a layer of storytelling worth consideration. And for me, reading about magic history is like that quote about sex: even not-great magic history is pretty good magic history.
Publishing info, my copy: hardback, Tarcher Pedigree, 2018
Acquired: Amazon, 7/16/2018