“Stunt” books are all over the shelves lately – that is, if you can manage to paw your way past all the teen vampires and DIY bondage. When an author decides to undergo some trial or address some goal primarily to write a book about it, the process can be intriguing, as long as the writing’s entertaining and manages to maintain an emotional hook on its schlub audience. THE INNOCENTS ABROAD notwithstanding, George Plimpton’s PAPER LION is probably the true granddaddy of the genre: literary fop, representing Everyman, temporarily joins the Detroit Lions football team. (Let the effete intellectual snob bashing – literal bashing! – begin.) I myself edited a delightful one a few years back, for which MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000’s Kevin Murphy attempted to see a movie every day for an entire year, traveling all over the world to do it. (Spoiler Alert: he succeeded, but not without some nail-biting close calls, one involving a kidney stone. The resulting A YEAR AT THE MOVIES is tons of fun.) Esquire’s A. J. Jacobs is a modern master of the stunt book. For various projects, he has read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, attempted to follow the Bible as literally as possible for one year, used himself as a human guinea pig, and bounced back from a case of pneumonia by doing everything he could to strive for bodily perfection. Interesting stuff.
Such books can get under your skin because you’re getting an inside look at a process. Everybody wants to play golf like Tiger Woods, and everybody with a modicum of talent might if they were willing to hit the required hundreds of thousands of golf balls in practice, to basically make that their life’s work and never stop. Stunt books describe extreme behavior, because to get really, really good at something, or to achieve a goal that the rest of us can’t even approach, you’ve got to obsess over it. So there’s that, and it’s the author’s responsibility to entertain all the while; “gee, isn’t this amazingly geeky?” might work for the length of a magazine article, that’s all. The very best stunt books reflect a much brighter facet. They illuminate the relevance of the featured obsession to mundane daily life. As magician Penn Jillette advises the Penn & Teller audience, don’t think about how we do it; think about why we do it.
A terrific book in this regard is MOONWALKING WITH EINSTEIN, for which author Joshua Foer determines that he will transform himself from a journalist into a world-class memorizer (did you even know there were international memory competitions? I didn’t) and explains, step by step, both how he does it and why. He sets out in layman’s terms the history and science behind short-term and long-term memory and shows us their prodigious consequences on broader health and culture. He uses centuries-old mnemonic devices for mind-boggling feats like committing the order of a deck of cards to memory in seconds. He becomes a true obsessive, yet the rational self sometimes peeks out, as when he – or his girlfriend – stops to regard himself wearing a sound-dampening helmet and sunglasses to ward away outside stimuli while he’s trying to concentrate.
Mr. Foer is consulted, and his methods are employed, in service to a literal, once again, mind-boggling illusion, in a more recent soul-baring effort, FOOLING HOUDINI by Alex Stone – the perfect bookend to MOONWALKING. Unlike Mr. Foer, who first learned about memory champions by covering them for Slate, we join Mr. Stone in medias res, for he is already adept enough at his own obsession, close-up magic, to be a member of the field’s oldest fraternity and a contestant in the World Championships of Magic, known as the “Magic Olympics.” Any book that begins with a triumph and then retraces the steps leading up to it is by now tired to the point of cliché. Fortunately for us, if not for Mr. Stone himself, his 2006 Magic Olympics performance in Stockholm is a disaster: he makes two improper moves and drops coins and cards in a sequence so pathetically amateurish that he is disqualified before he can even complete his routine. His depletion and humiliation are so stark that he actually gives up his lifelong hobby for a while: “I had no business trying to pass myself off as a world-class magician. A world-class hack was more like it. A champion loser.” Act I is over within the first twenty pages.
During his months-long, now-girlfriendless sulk, Mr. Stone is accepted into a Ph.D. program in physics at Columbia University. He gradually drifts back into magic by tentatively attending a local Society of American Magicians meeting and thereby discovering that nobody is there to taunt him, not even those who witnessed his Stockholm meltdown. Convinced that his Magic Olympics routine, even had it been performed perfectly, would still have been derivative and boring, he decides to raise his game, and he takes us along to watch as slowly, inexorably, magic elbows out physics in his increasingly frenzied world.
What he now wants to know can’t be learned from books, not even THE EXPERT AT THE CARD TABLE, the 1902 card-manipulation classic by the pseudonymous “S. W. Erdnase” (E. S. Andrews?) that has never been out of print. Mr. Stone’s first real mentor is Wes James, who studied with the legendary Dai Vernon, the man who fooled Harry Houdini with a trick called the “Ambitious Card” that not only can any modern magician perform, but it’s also a rite of passage to come up with your own individual variation. (James one-ups the author’s smug familiarity with Erdnase by telling him there are fifteen mistakes in the book, three of which only he knows about.) From there, he embarks on an eccentric, eclectic quest to unearth arcane knowledge and become the magician he dreams of being. What makes this book wonderful is that, like Joshua Foer, Mr. Stone places the math, psychology and, yes, physics behind magic in context within the wider world. Turns out you can learn so much more from magic than just magic.
He visits a man named Richard Turner (no less than Dai Vernon said he “does things with cards that nobody else in the world can do”). Richard Turner is perhaps the greatest living card cheat. Richard Turner is also legally blind. This leads to a discourse on the sense of touch, how it can be amplified, and how Turner’s blindness may even be an asset. When Mr. Stone successfully hides some illegal moves from his friendly Texas Hold-Em group – without cheating them out of any actual money – it scares him a little. Attention to the con game “Three-Card Monte” and its cousin, the “Shell Game,” both of which depend upon sleight-of-hand to fleece suckers, yields insights into persuasion and misdirection. A good monte dealer and a good used-car salesman have lots in common; they both know how to use the “ego hook.”
Mr. Stone wrote a 2008 article in Harper’s revealing some magic secrets and was pilloried for it (even though acts like Penn & Teller dine out on such heresies as performing the venerable “Cups and Balls” routine with transparent cups). This leads to a rumination about secrecy in magic, and how creators break their “code” every day by selling effects and techniques, sometimes through the retail market. (The first magicians who tried to patent a new effect quickly learned that this very process leads to its publication in a form that anyone can consult. That’s why today’s magic effects are not protected by patent or copyright law, and why there’s so much blatant theft in the business.)
Mr. Stone visits mentalists, performers who pretend to read minds but actually use sophisticated psychological (sometimes physical) techniques to support the illusion. He learns how to steal a watch while facing the victim onstage. He takes classes in juggling, dance, yoga, even clowning, to round out his stage persona. And in the meantime we learn about the neuropsychology of multitasking (that’s what magicians force us to do so that we’ll be unable to process information at normal speed – it’s the same effect as talking on a cell phone while driving, which is statistically as dangerous as driving drunk), change blindness (we see what we expect to see, not what’s really there. You probably registered the Ace of Hearts on the book cover up top. You were wrong), and information theory (shuffling doesn’t randomize cards nearly as well as you may think it does).
That last little snippet leads Mr. Stone to his piece de resistance, an astonishing effect that requires nearly everything he’s learned thus far, plus the memory techniques taught him by Mr. Foer. You and I couldn’t do it, because we haven’t spent the required hundreds of hours developing the agility of our fingers, the muscles in our hands, and the ways to retain specific information surely, instantly. Even knowing Mr. Stone’s method doesn’t take away from his accomplishment.
In both these books, we see dozens of little flashes of unconscious rehearsal that permeate everyday life. Mr. Stone always has a deck of cards or a few coins on him; he’s practicing while riding the subway, watching a movie – it never ends. Then one day, renewed and rejuvenated, he flies to San Diego for the International Brotherhood of Magicians Gold Cups, the world’s greatest close-up competition. To find out what happens, read the goddam book. Because Mr. Stone has been doing magic since childhood, we don’t get the “he’s just like me” feeling that Mr. Foer brings; the magician starts with some basic skills that you don’t have. But in both books, the case is soundly made that the stated achievements are well within your power, given the drive, the patience, and most important, the ability to withstand the drudgery of turning it all into second nature. These are both guys who have learned how to do some amazingly cool things. Peeking behind the curtain only makes our applause that much louder.
9/18/12: Here’s a great piece by Mr. Stone from Discover.com on how your “choice” can be forced, one of the deep dark secrets of magic.
7/15/17: You can see the mindblowing Richard Turner for yourself on Season 4, Episode 1 of PENN & TELLER: FOOL US on The CW. After his amazing demonstration, the boys don’t even have to confer: he flat fooled them. It’s easy to find online. Seek it out.