REVIEW: Fooling Houdini

Book by Alex Stone

by Mike Doherty

The words “stage magic” conjure up cheesy costumes, cringeworthy patter, and senselessly flashy tricks. Why, asks Alex Stone, can’t magicians “own up to their own nerdiness”? In leading us behind the curtain of modern-day wizardry, he does just that, and his disarming strategy pays off.

Stone, who delayed his Ph.D. in physics at Columbia in order to attend conventions and workshops on everything from mentalism to the three-card monte, is an ideal guide to the world of magic. He delves into the oddball history of what he learns, touching on ancient Egyptian wizards, Renaissance “witches,” and confidence tricksters in the Wild West. Beyond explaining how certain illusions are created (a practice for which he’s been threatened with expulsion from the Society of American Magicians), he takes us through mathematical models and psychological experiments to explain their underlying principles.

Stone shows us how a blind man’s sleight-of-hand mastery demonstrates brain plasticity, how misdirection in magic shows relates to selective attention and car crashes, and how the concept of the dollar store evolved from confidence games. And his book tells of his own transformation, from a hapless hack with a disastrous act at the Magic Olympics, to a math-loving conjuror who earns respect from his peers and finds geek love.

Stone’s style is engagingly chatty, and although some pictures would be welcome, his detailed, droll observations set scenes with ease. While he fails to tell us how to pull a rabbit out of a hat, he’s clearly learned that crucial showbiz secret: always leave ’em wanting more.




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